About ten years ago I did something that I still feel bad about.
A friend and colleague of mine had a meeting with some producers at MTV to pitch a show—it was quite a coup for him and he was very excited about the meeting. Instead of celebrating this success with him, I started thinking about how I could benefit from this meeting. After all, I had created a book series that had great potential as a TV show, and gee, it wasn’t every day that someone I knew was rubbing elbows with television producers. Even though I knew deep down that I was crossing the line, I asked him to bring along a copy of my series treatment and slip it to someone important when he had the chance.
Never mind that I was putting him on the spot. Never mind that he had his own pitch to worry about. Never mind that slipping my treatment to the producers could make him look unprofessional. Never mind that I was jeopardizing our friendship.
When he returned from the meeting, I asked him how it went. He said he didn’t have a chance to give my treatment to anyone. He couldn’t look me in the eye when he said this, which led me to believe that he had simply not chosen to do it. I was disappointed—and ashamed of my behavior.
When you start seeking out opportunities, it’s easy to get greedy. If you’re not careful, you can start seeing the people around you as commodities. There’s a fine line between seizing opportunities and being an opportunist; you need to be aggressive enough to kick doors open, but not so aggressive that you exploit people’s kindness and personal relationships. Here are a few guidelines to help you get ahead without stepping on any toes:
1) Information is free—action is not. One of the best ways to create opportunities is to ask questions. When successful people have the time, they are usually more than happy to share their expertise. Be polite, listen with true interest, and ask the right questions and you’d be surprised what opportunities can open up for you. Sometimes they might even offer to help you out in a more concrete way. If they don’t, it’s best not to ask for any favors. There are, of course, many exceptions— you just have to be able to read the person and the situation correctly. When in doubt, thank them for their time and be happy with the information you have.
2) Assume the other person’s time and resources are more valuable than yours. If you remember this rule, you are much more likely to approach any situation in a more generous frame of mind. Sure, you might be the next Jonathan Safran Foer, but you still need to assume that most people are too busy to talk to you—because most of them are. Rather than thinking, “You’ll want to help me because I’m going to be famous someday,” you should use phrases like, “I hope I’m not disturbing you…” or “Thank you for your time” or “If you have a moment to spare, I’d love to find out about…” Then be as brief and concise as possible. You don’t have to grovel—just be considerate.
3) If someone does you a favor, be accommodating. If they agree to a phone interview, call on time. If they agree to meet you in person, let them choose the time and place, and if your schedule is busy, move mountains to be there at the time that is best for them. If they agree to read your manuscript, give them as much time as they need.
4) If someone does you a favor, don’t ask for another. Once someone has helped you out, it may be tempting to squeeze just one more favor out of them. You have to be aggressive to get ahead, right? What will likely happen is that you’ll look greedy and may even come across as a bit of a pest, which will only backfire on you. Accept the favor and then search out other opportunities.
5) A little gratitude goes a long way. This may be the most important tip to remember. If you’re meeting in person, buy them lunch or a cup of coffee. Send thank you notes. Let them know that you appreciate what they’ve done.
The main goal of showing gratitude and consideration is to be respectful of others—the side benefit is that you will build a favorable impression and maybe even a lasting relationship. Arrogance closes doors, respect opens them.