The Secret, Foolproof, 4-Step Way To Get To Know The Important And Influential

Just as I’ve recently realized that I’ve gradually evolved from a self-proclaimed child prodigy into a grey-haired voice of experience, I’ve also found that I’ve come to know a lot of important and influential people.

Just in the past week, seemingly at random, I’ve had friends who are spending the day with Bill Clinton, launching a new critically-acclaimed show on NBC, and helping to run some of the biggest enterprises in the world.

The funny thing is that I’ve never been one of those networkers who, a la Ferrazzi, uses a careful plan to climb the social ladder. I’ve just wandered the world in my usual haphazard way. But with hindsight, I can see that I actually did follow a few basic principles that seemed to be very successful.

1) Seek out situations with lots of smart, ambitious people.

There’s a lot of talk about how elite educational institutions aren’t worth the money. I’m here to tell you that’s a load of crap. The main reason I know people outside the world of the Silicon Valley startup community is because I happened to attend both Stanford University and Harvard Business School. The folks I met and the friends I made during my (admittedly expensive) years in the hallowed halls represent an incredibly broad spectrum of achievement in different areas.

You should also choose your employers carefully. Because I worked for D. E. Shaw & Co., L.P. (see David, I’m still using the proper name for the company), which is even more selective than Stanford and HBS, I got to know even more interesting and talented people. I doubt the same would be true if I worked for a different company.

These kinds of institutions provide a target-rich environment, obviating the need for any carefully planned strategy or approach.

2) Don’t limit your relationships to people who seem immediately “useful.”

I see people make this mistake all the time. They gravitate towards the folks who seem immediately useful. They jostle and pit dive for the opportunity to speak to the already rich and famous. That’s generally a waste of time. Instead, you should build relationships with as many smart and interesting people as you can, regardless of how immediately useful they might appear.

Indeed, the most important criteria for building relationships is whether or not you like a person and find them interesting. Expending effort to build a relationship with someone you neither like nor respect is an onerous chore that’s unlikely to pay off.

3) Stay in touch, and stay genuinely interested in people’s lives.

Naturally, once you find a smart and interesting person, stay in touch. Figure out how you can help them. For God’s sake, don’t be one of those people that only contacts someone when they need something.

By staying in touch over a long period of time, you build a solid, persistent relationship. That sort of relationship is far more likely to be mutually beneficial.

Some people think of relationships as a vein of ore to be mined…”Don’t contact them too much, or you’ll run out!” That’s exactly the wrong way of thinking. A relationship is something to be nurtured, and each contact should increase its strength. If not, you don’t have a real relationship.

4) Wait 10-15 years.

This is both the hardest and easiest part. When I was young, older alumni would assure me that someday, I’d be glad that I went to Stanford. Or Harvard Business School. I wasn’t always sure what they meant. After all, doesn’t simply being a member of the club give me a leg up?

Now I understand. The key alumni network are the people you already have relationships with, not the rich and famous (though I will point out that even as a student at HBS, Jamie Dimon was kind enough to return one of my calls–don’t dismiss the power of the network!). Wait 10 years after b-school, or 15 years after college, and your old friends will be hitting the peak years of their careers. And guess who people always prefer to work with–the people they know and trust, especially if that relationship stretches out over decades of experience.

While it may prevent me from ever writing a best-selling book on this topic, I’m happy to share my secrets. But that’s the thing–they’re not secrets. There is no trick.

Just get to know smart, interesting people, keep building your relationships with those you enjoy spending time with, and wait for time to work its magic. Good luck, and get started!

9 thoughts on “The Secret, Foolproof, 4-Step Way To Get To Know The Important And Influential

  1. This is an interesting topic, but it causes some raised eyebrows for me.

    The points you make regarding associations with interesting, motivated, but not obviously useful people are good ones. As with any relationship or investment, you must first invest time and energy before you can hope to expect dividends.

    I’m not sure I agree with the notion that great leaders are produced or more easily identified if they come from Ivy League institutions. An article from Time Magazine from 2006 showed that just as many Fortune 50 CEOs attended UTexas as Harvard.

    People are attractive and successful because they have something to contribute, whether it’s energy and enthusiasm, knowledge, or ability. If you are a miserable person with a bad attitude, it won’t matter that you have BA from Yale, a MBA from Sloan and worked at a high-profile consulting firm.

    I suggest that what you offer others has more bearing on your success than your academic or work pedigree.

  2. Hey Chris, I’ve enjoyed our friendship over these past 2 + years – from political debates to business interest it’s always been my pleasure.

  3. Great post, Chris. The overall message being that, as with almost anything, instead of trying to game it, meet everyone you can, be useful and engaging, and value people for who they are as opposed to their name, pedigree, or position.

    @ Sam: It’s true that great achievers come from every walk of life and background, and attend all kinds of schools (or in many cases, don’t attend school at all). I don’t think Chris meant to suggest that where you went to school is more important than what kind of person you are, or how motivated or capable. But it also seems beyond dispute that some institutions produce some pretty insane networks – whether you chalk it up to the exclusivity of certain schools, the quality of applicants they attract, or their support structure for alumni..

    Harvard is a great example. The number of Harvard Law alumni appointed or nominated to official posts by the Obama administration in just a few months is staggering. It seems like they issue a new press release every single day:

    Elena Kagan ’86 – Solicitor General
    Cass Sunstein ’78 – Administrator, OIRA
    Julius Genachowski ’91 – Head of FCC
    Daniel J. Meltzer ’75 – Principal Deputy Council to the President
    Preeta Bansal ’89 – General Council, White House Office of Budget and Mgmt.
    Jocelyn Frye ’88 – Domestic Policy deputy assistant to the President
    David Kris ’91 – Head of DOJ’s National Security Division
    Jody Freeman LL.M. ’91 – Counsellor for Energy and Climate Change

    (and that’s just in January – I got tired of listing them all..)

  4. Anonymous

    Chris, this is great post. I recently had an opportunity to mentor an Ivy kid who’s about to graduate and nervous about the real world. Kid reminded me a lot of me — academic high-flyer, good at focusing on tasks, but no real career direction or focus. It was interesting to learn from him that while he loved meeting people and forming relationships, “networking” with some objective in mind (which is how he was thinking of it) made him uncomfortable.

    Your post crystalized a lot of my thoughts about the value of forming relationships with no specific objective. I talked about it with him, and you could see him relax and approach his career exploration with a new lightness. I guess convincing a privileged kid to lighten up isn’t like saving the world, but I sure wish someone had directed me to your post when I was 21.


  5. Sam,

    I definitely didn’t mean to imply that the Ivy League institutions are the only places where you can develop relationships with interesting people.

    In fact, if you’re planning to make a career in a particular location, the local institutions are probably better. There’s a reason why UCLA and USC grads dominate in the entertainment industry.


    Thanks for doing the hard work of digging out the stats on HLS grads. It is quite impressive and somewhat frightening at the same time.


    I’m glad that this post was helpful. Even the privileged deserve happiness!

  6. As a Solo Entrepenuer, I find this to be one of the most frustrating things to do. I go to meetups, trade shows, I’m now even partnering with someone to just get out of the bubble.
    What do yall recommend for Solo Entrepenuers

  7. Adrian,

    There’s no magic formula for finding smart and interesting people. But, smart and interesting people do tend to attract each other. Every time you meet someone smart and interesting, try to find out where they go to meet other smart and interesting people.

    The answers may surprise you.

  8. Anonymous


    perhaps more specifically:

    Adrian: get involved in something completely outside of your intended arena. You can expect your arena to be saturated with experts and experience. But if you are in a situation where nobody else knows what you know, you become the resident ‘expert’.

  9. The interesting thing about things that are obvious is that they're not obvious to most people, for whatever reason.

    I'm glad to know that I'm doing #2, 3 & 4 even though I didn't have the opportunity to do #1. It just always came naturally and felt right.

    I can't stand weasels who are obviously not interested in the person, but try to create a relationship based solely on the fact that they think this person might be useful to them. It might not occur to them, but people who are truly intelligent can see their game from miles away.

    So I'd add this to your post. Don't ever be fake. Then again you already said pretty much the same thing at the end.

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