You may have noticed that most classic martial arts films follow a standard formula. Our fragile, relatively young hero is defeated by the enemy; he then leaves the city deflated, yet determined to seek out the ‘old wise master’. On finding him and securing great ‘truths’ he returns, and is victorious over his nemesis.
Throughout past times, with craftsmanship, there has always been this pass-me-down knowledge dynamic. The elder supportively teaches the younger the required skills.
Today, mastering the craft of web design can be a frustrating endeavour – because it’s often done in isolation. Designers, naturally, would be the last to admit that whilst mastering technique alone is difficult, it’s also safe, predictable and comfortable. And while this is a necessary means for advancing your craft – on a day-to-day basis, it can sometimes obscure a more fundamental form of progress.
Building relationships with thought leaders is fundamental to learning. I don't believe that learning is impossible without it. I just believe it opens the door for us to have a deep appreciation, eventually allowing us to take an authoritative stance over our craft.
It raises your standard
Exposing yourself to those who have produced great work gives you a measuring stick. It’s by sitting with them, that you develop your voice. And, a new standard. More importantly, something subtle takes place. You start to see what they see.
The ‘how to’
The inevitable question then becomes, how do I enter into these relationships with thought leaders? The trick, of course, is putting yourself in a position where they are willing to help. So I emailed them and asked.
Approach in person
Oliver Reichenstein, founder of iA, explains that “it’s easier to approach me in person at a conference than during work or free time”. Stefan Sagmeister revealed that he “has a salon once a month where designers come into the studio”. If you’re in a position to meet them in person, then do so. The noise is relatively minimal and will enrich future engagements.
Alex Bogusky, founder of FearLess Cottage and founding partner at CP+B raises an interesting point: “Just because somebody is a thought leader it's wrong to think that they can help you. You are on a unique journey and some people can help and others will only confuse you.” Therefore I think it’s important to select the ones that have actually done what you aspire to accomplish.
If you’re unable to meet your chosen mentor in person, the next best thing is email. And it's worth emphasising good email etiquette. Erik Spiekermann, typographer and founder of FontShop, explains that “good spelling and a personal message (unlike an email which sounds like it was sent to a few dozen people)” is key. Sagmeister also states that anything addressed to "'Dear Sir' is moved into the trash unread”.
The aim of the initial email is to start the engagement. Make the request small. Make it easy to respond to. Jason Fried, founder of 37signals, says that “The more specific, the more inclined I am to carve out the time to help someone.” Spiekermann further explains that he will “not answer general questions such as "What is the future of typography?".
Make it interesting
One theme that continued to float to the surface, was the importance of being ‘interesting’. Jason Fried explains, “I love to help people who ask interesting questions.”
It’s worth noting that thought leaders are looking to be stretched. Asking something that requires them to think is a very good thing. Alex Bogusky explains that having an "interesting story can be helpful”. Think about what makes you different from everybody else, and strive to communicate this.
Show a willingness to learn
I think the relationship needs to be rooted in respect, it’s not about showing how much you already know – but that you want to learn. Jason Fried says he enjoys “helping people who are up for being challenged. If you're just going to push back, then you don't need me.”
Pitch for the relationship
Don’t expect these guys to be overly charitable with their time – planning is paramount. Treat it like a pitch. Pitch for the relationship. What do you bring to the table? Alex Bogusky claims that “If you have something to offer in return, it can increase the odds of engagement. The more you offer of yourself the more you'll receive.”
Keep them posted
Keep your mentor in the loop. Don’t expect to be chased. And keep it purposeful. Keep them posted on your progress. Show that you’ve implemented their advice – and what the outcome was. Show them that you’re still on the path.
Finally, all admire persistence when reaching out. Be like the young martial artist who climbs mountains and crosses the desert to find the one who can take you to the next level.