The one question that can get your foot in the door anywhere

Keith Ferrazzi mustered up the chutzpah to approach the former chairman of Goldman Sachs and ask him for a favor. This was no mid-level executive; this was a head honcho at one of the most powerful institutions in the history of civilization.

But Ferrazzi’s favor would be far different than the ones we’re accustomed to asking.

“How long is your to-do list right now?” Ferrazzi asked.

“Well,” the chairman replied, “There are about 20 important things I need to be working on right now.”

Ferrazzi didn’t miss a beat: “Would you do me the biggest favor in the world and pick one thing on that list that you think I could add any value to, and please give me an assignment?

“I’ll tell you what,” said the chairman, “Stick around for my next meeting and I’ll have plenty of work you can do for me.”

Now, with a foot in the door, Ferrazzi had the ear of one of the most powerful guys in the world, all because of a benign question.

Whether you think Goldman Sachs is a bastion of evil or doing “God’s work” is irrelevant. Take a step back and consider the situation: this chairman had pockets deeper than the Grand Canyon and a rolodex of the world’s power elite in his pocket. Why would he waste his time with some eager beaver with a mysterious agenda?

To answer this question, we need to put ourselves in the shoes of the chairman. He’s busy. He’s stressed. He’s accountable to thousands of employees and shareholders. Does he want to take some up-and-comer under his wing? No. He needs to get shit done. And that’s why Ferrazzi got his foot in the door instead of the thousands of schmucks who had approached the chairman over the years. He understood that clearing the path ultimately determines its direction.

Most of us live in a silo of our own imaginations, thoughts, and desires — we assume that people are selfless when in reality they’re in the same boat as us: they need help, just different kinds of help. We need an opportunity, they need a memo written, an interview transcribed, a story to reference, and so on. It’s our job to create symmetry between their needs and ours.

Of course, most people don’t realize this (or refuse to acknowledge it), which leads to absurd questions like:

Would you like to meet for coffee?

Do you have any internship/job opportunities?

Can I pick your brain?

Will you be my mentor?

Contrast those questions with the technique Ferrazzi used:

Is there any work I can take off your hands?

Could I handle an assignment you don’t have time for?

The common denominator with the latter is that it appeals to self-interest rather than mercy. There are no strings attached to these offers, no quid pro quo implications.

But wait, you say, I need an internship, a job, or [insert formalized relationship] — why would I offer to do some one-off project with no contract or payment structure?

This is a toxic thought process, and it’s exactly why the internet is rife with cynics and sympathizers claiming there are no opportunities. Someone is supposed to come knocking on our door and serve our dream job on a silver platter.

Yeah, right.

Almost every work opportunity I’ve developed started with bringing something to the table: a connection, a relief valve for grunt work, a useful quote. Did they all pan out the way I wanted? Not by a long shot. But I learned something valuable: you have to plant as many seeds as you can, because you never know which one is going to shoot up out of the dirt and blossom.

No matter how skilled or ambitious you are, you’ll always find yourself in the position of approaching people who are higher up on the totem pole. Whether you need them to fund your startup, advise your nonprofit, or just offer advice, it’s your ability to tactfully ask for help that will determine how far you get — so you might as well do it right.

Storyteller, provocateur, bibliophile. For book rec’s and history lessons 👉

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