The magical Internet, making connections and asking the right questions

The Internet has given us an embarrassment of riches in terms of our ability to connect with people. This is an obvious statement, but sometimes I take things so much for granted that I forget the opportunities that this puts in front of me.

When I started work at my current firm in 2010 the managers in the team were all walking around with newly-released iPads in their hands. I distinctly remember my boss raving about how he had been in contact with the developer of a mind-mapping app he was using and how changes he had requested were being released to his iPad just a few days or weeks later. It felt magical. Compared with the computing experience we had grown up with, it was magical. The iOS App Store’s ubiquitous links back to application developer websites made it so straightforward to get in contact, and the rise once again of applications created and maintained by solo developers meant that emails got straight to the right person. My boss’s enthusiasm gave me an ‘of course, why didn’t I think of that?’ feeling.

A few years later, I became very involved as a user of the Readmill social reading platform. Talking to the team via Twitter and providing regular feedback led me to having good long Skype conversations with a couple of members of the team. It felt great that they cared so much that they wanted my input and I really wanted to help them to make it more successful.

Serendipitously, I’ve heard three podcasts in the past few days which have made me start to think again about the connections we are able to make and the value that they bring. Firstly, Ryan Holiday on Tim Ferris‘ podcast spoke about how mentors aren’t necessarily people with whom you have struck up a formal relationship:

Ryan: People think mentorships are these very official relationships — the way that an apprenticeship was like your parents basically sold you to someone in exchange for like room and board for a number of years and then you officially learn a trade. A mentor is anyone who you learn from, who gives you advice and teaches you things…and you don’t actually have to meet them for them to be your mentor…I think a lot of people they hold out for this sanctioned, official relationship rather than learning from anyone who has wisdom or advice or value that they could pass your way, and if you put it into practice and you do something with it, they see value in that as well.

Tim: Asking someone to be a formal mentor is the absolute best way to never have a good mentor.

Ryan: Totally.

Tim: Because it’s like, “Hey! Do you want to sign up for an unpaid part-time job, because you have so much free time?” It doesn’t work. So I’d just be curious to hear what you did and what you would recommend people do if they were trying to find or looking for that type of teacher. I think ‘mentor’ is problematic as they think of it in such formal terms. Maybe you can talk on that point.

Ryan: I think it was once every couple of weeks — no, couple of months probably — and I would just ask questions that I thought would be helpful to me but very easy for him to answer. It’s like hey, if you want me to read your manuscript that’s a lot of work for me to do…if someone wants you to give a five-second instant opinion on a title, you’re like “Sure, that’s one email.” And so I don’t think people think about 1) what they are actually asking and then 2) they ask a lot over and over again.

The Verso Books podcast featured an interview with Ilija Trojanow, author of The Lamentations of Zeno, where he explained how he got in contact with a scientist as part of his research for his novel on glaciers and climate change:

Ilija: After a while I had the backbone of the story and I realised that if I was to write about it I would actually have to get seriously involved, I would have to get seriously informed about stuff like geology and particularly glaciology. And then of course in regard to the more scientific aspects of climate change. So I looked up on the Internet who is a well-known glaciologist and I found a professor in Zurich who has a very Swiss name, Haeberli. I called Professor Haeberli and he very kindly invited me [to visit]). I went to the university in Zurich and told him the story and asked him to brutally honestly tell me whether from his point of view as a specialist if it makes any sense. And when I was telling him the story you could see how his face kind of changed a little bit; I was thinking to myself “Oh boy, he’s going to tell me ‘No, forget about it. This is utter nonsense.'” And quite the opposite happened, he actually said “Where did you get the story from?” And I said “Well, I dreamt it up, basically.” And he said “This is incredible, this is exactly the way I feel and this is so pertinent and so close to my personal experience and the experience of so many other scientists I know. So, by all means, go ahead and write it and if you need any help…”

Anil Dash featured on the wonderful Track Changes podcast where he noted that:

The Internet was for people to communicate. The main thing people do on the Internet today is send messages to each other. That’s the most popular thing.

Anil takes this to an extreme by featuring his email address and phone number in his online profiles, for example on Twitter, which sounds crazy but doesn’t seem to have caused him any problems:

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about people I admire and want to be around — whether physically or virtually — in order to learn from. As I have grown up with the web over the past twenty years there are a few characters that have always seemed to have popped up in multiple contexts — Matt Haughey, Anil Dash, Jeff Atwood, Merlin Mann, Michael Lopp, Andy Baio, Euan Semple, JP Rangaswami and Marco Arment to name a few — and continue to do so. Their work and thoughts have been very valuable to me. I’ve always felt like a simple consumer of the great things they produced, admiring from afar, reading their blog posts and tweets, listening to their podcasts and watching their videos. On occasion, I’ve spoken to some of them through email, or more often Twitter, and in each case I find it amazing that they have ever found the time to respond.

Sometimes when I am grappling with solving a difficult problem or making something better, particularly at work, I forget that there are lots of experts out there who are just a few taps away. Remembering to cast a wide net with my communications is something I need to do much more often. However, as per Ryan Holiday’s comments above you need to make sure that you aren’t placing an unreasonable burden on people and that ideally the question has value to both of you.

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