I was a teenager obsessed with glossy magazines, holding on tightly to a dream of one day writing for them. Then, I read an editor’s letter that changed my life.
Her name was Atoosa Rubenstein, and at just 26 years old, she was the founding editor of CosmoGIRL! magazine. As I pored over her words on the page, I felt seen, inspired and overwhelmed with the need to reach out to her. This was the type of woman I wanted to be when I grew up.
I wrote her a note explaining all of this, gushing over her amazing new magazine and telling her how inspiring she was to me. Then I saw her on the jumbotron at the Miss Teen USA pageant in my hometown (she was a judge and I was in the audience), and I tried to track her down after the show, but security whisked her away before I could talk to her.
I felt like that missed opportunity was my big chance to meet her, to tell her everything I needed to say, but I decided not to give up. I wrote a flattering column about her in my local newspaper and sent her a copy along with a heartfelt note, then crossed my fingers for a reply.
It finally came — a beautiful handwritten note written in pink ink filled with gratitude for me writing to her. (Can you believe it? She was thankful for me?) But the last sentence made me cry actual tears: She offered to be my mentor. I knew at that moment my life would change forever. And it did. I wouldn’t be where I am today without her support and guidance through the years.
This is always the staple story I tell to college graduates when they ask me for career advice. Not just because it’s my favorite story (it really is a great one, right?), but because it’s truly useful. We should all channel the passion and bravery of our inner teenage selves and reach out to those we admire.
I still do this in my career today. If I read a book I love, I’ll reach out to the author to praise their work. (As an author myself, I know how special it feels to receive a note from a reader.) Email exchanges with bestselling writers have turned into real friendships, and I’ve learned so much by connecting with them.
It’s easy to be intimidated by someone who is powerful and in a position of which you could only dream, so of course you might feel hesitant to reach out. But the thing is, who wouldn’t love to hear that someone likes their work or feels inspired by them?
When the note comes from the heart, the worst thing that could happen is you don’t get a response. The best thing? You make a connection. And how amazing would that be?!
Career expert Ashley Stahl told me she always advises her clients to cold email people they admire. “Your golden ticket in your career is the relationships that you build,” she said.
Stahl, who wrote the career path book "You Turn," did warn that not everyone is going to get a response, and that’s OK.
“We live in a world where the average professional gets 250 emails a day,” she said. “We’re not in a world right now where writing back to every email is even humanly realistic.”
But there are ways to make your email stand out and get a higher response rate. Here are some of Stahl's best tips.
1. Make sure you’re really familiar with their work
If we’re talking about someone you admire, you're probably already familiar with what they do. Stahl recommends sharing what it is about them you find inspiring.
“If someone did something special and heartfelt in their career and you really want to acknowledge that, that’s a great way to come in," she said. “Take notice of where somebody has actualized what looks like probably a very heartfelt dream, and you’re going to increase your chances of getting a response when they open up the email.”
2. Keep the email short and clear
Start with why you find them inspiring (see above), then tell them a little about yourself. If you’re a newbie — like a recent graduate or someone who just moved to a new city — use that to your advantage. “There’s an altruistic natural desire for people to help those who are new,” Stahl said. This is also a great time to say how you could potentially provide value to them, whatever that may be.
3. Seek connection
Even if you’re hoping this correspondence will turn into a mentorship one day, Stahl said it’s best not to flat-out ask for that. Instead, ask someone for their time instead. If you have questions for them, let them know.
She suggested making an ask for 10 minutes of their time on a Zoom call at their convenience. Not everyone will be able to do this, of course, but if you get that interaction, it will be golden.
4. Set your intentions
If you do get a response and have an opportunity to chat with your career idol, first do a little dance(!!), and then make sure you know exactly what you want to get out of the conversation. “You want to be respectful of somebody’s time so you want to be really clear on what you want to be asking them,” Stahl said. “I think the worst thing you can do is have a mentorship conversation without having thought about what your intentions are. That’s really heavy for a mentor to have to direct the conversation.”
So if you've been wondering if it’s OK to send someone you admire an email, the answer is yes (as long as their contact info is available to the public, of course). And you never know — they just might surprise you and change your life.