How to manage your inbox so you don’t miss a life-changing opportunity

Everyone wants a piece of you. Prioritize who you help; help those who help others.
Everyone wants a piece of you. Prioritize who you help; help those who help others.
Image: AP Photo/Amr Nabil
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Many people hate their inbox, but I love mine. I get hundreds of emails each day. At least a few times a week, I get a request for help from a stranger, and these give me a thrill. Doing a little favor for someone is a great way to kickstart my day. It gives me the energy to tackle the much bigger problems that are part of my routine.

When I was young, if you told me you had a problem, I’d be likely to counter with a problem of my own—rather than help you solve yours. That all changed on the morning of May 6, 1982, when someone told me there is no shortage of work, and when the money dries up, the work piles up. I had been unemployed for months, and he suggested that rather than look for jobs, I look for people with problems and try to figure out how to solve them.

A few days later I began writing to everyone I knew (about 200 people in all) saying that I was looking for problems to solve. Almost immediately an investment bank asked me to read some computer code and write a user’s manual. Although the project lasted only about a month, it completely changed the direction of my life, and led to a career in finance.

Since that day in 1982 I have never had to look at a job ad to find a job. Instead, I go out of my way to find people with problems. I love small problems I can solve in a few minutes or hours, and occasionally problems come along that lead to jobs. I’ve been in my current position since 1995, but the history of how I got it began with a small favor I did for someone four years earlier.

Why this matters is dissected in Wharton professor Adam Grant’s best-selling book, Give and Take. In a recent interview he did with the Chronicle of Higher Education, Grant began by saying his email was his most fascinating read. The interview did not pursue that thread, so I wrote to him to ask for more details.

His answers can help anyone contemplating asking a stranger for help finding work—or for anything else, for that matter. Of course, I recommend you try to get yourself on the other side of the equation. Be a source of help to a hundred or so people each year and the work will come looking for you. Edited excerpts of our interview:

Brooke: The Chronicle asked you for the first thing you read each morning, and you responded, “I immediately gravitate to the most mesmerizing, so-enthralling-that-I-can’t-put-it-down genre of our era: e-mail.”

Most people I know think of their inbox as a burden. Do you have a special way of handling your inbox?

Adam: It can be a burden, but my inbox has also been a source of many meaningful connections.  To explain this, let me share a bit of history.

I first started using email when I was 12, and as a shy kid, it was a way for me to come out of my shell and form relationships.  In 1999, when I was a high school senior preparing to move halfway across the country for college, I connected with a few future classmates online, and we started an e-group to begin getting to know each other and exchange advice.  By April, the list had more than a hundred members, and we all met in person at a pre-freshman event. Thanks to email, I started college with a group of friends, and many of that original group remain among my closest friends today.

Looking back, it’s amusing that our rudimentary online social network predated Facebook by half a decade.  Years later, when I became a professor, it occurred to me that email was a vehicle for fostering dialogue with my more introverted students, and I encouraged them to share their ideas electronically if they didn’t feel comfortable speaking up in class.  All along the way, email has been one of my favorite tools for helping others.  Many of the notes in my inbox are requests for advice or introductions, and I try to contribute as often as I can.  I think of these responses as what Fortune’s best networker, Adam Rifkin, calls the five-minute favor: a way of adding high value to others’ lives at a low personal cost. Since I can’t be equally responsive to everyone, I prioritize by responding to my family first, students second, colleagues third, and everyone else fourth.

Brooke: Are there things you subscribe to, which you ignore most days, but you might look at occasionally for a laugh or inspiration, such as Wordsmith’s Word-a-Day service?

Adam: I don’t maintain many subscriptions via email—the updates in my inbox are from the LinkedIn Influencers program and psychology and management journals.

Brooke: Now that you have a best-selling book, I bet your inbox has exploded. Can you categorize the kinds of emails you get from strangers?

Adam:  I’ve seen at least four broad types of emails from strangers. The most common are direct requests for help—usually people seeking career advice. Second are inquiries about the ideas in Give and Take, and how to apply them or share them with others.  Third are requests for introductions and connections. The final category, which is by far the most rare, is people writing me and asking if they can help me—or offering to help me help others. It’s very Jerry Maguire…

Brooke: How do you wish strangers would treat you when they write?

Adam: In an ideal world, I would love for strangers to follow four principles:

1. Ask rather than demand. It’s remarkable that many emails from strangers have included statements like “I need your help” and “We should definitely meet.” When people declare their requests as statements or pleas rather than questions, I find myself less enthusiastic about helping.  Just asking politely, and acknowledging that I might be busy, turns out to be rather endearing and refreshing.

2. Tell me how I can help without requesting a call or meeting. It’s much more palatable for me to help a large number of people if I can make them the five-minute favors. During one week, I counted the hours of my time that strangers were seeking, and found that they added up to more than 24 hours per day. To manage that load, I find that I’m most helpful when the request is for me to make an introduction or share knowledge by providing references to relevant articles, studies, or books.

3. Keep the email short and sweet. After receiving hundreds of emails from strangers that were many pages long, it’s clear that longer messages require much more time to read and respond. I’m now aiming to limit my own emails to one paragraph or less, and it would be incredible if strangers did the same.

4. Show that you’re willing to pay it forward. I was taken aback by the sheer number of people who came out of the woodwork with requests for themselves. I want to invest my time where I can have the most significant and lasting impact, so I’m much more excited about helping people who are motivated to help others. The strangers who receive the most support from me are those who make it clear how they planned to pay it forward—and to whom.

For more thoughts on this issue, see my recent blog entry, “6 Ways to Get Me to Email You Back.”

Brooke: About 20 years ago, I stopped reading the newspaper because it felt like the world was asking me to care about too many things I could not do anything about. Instead I limit what I care about, and concentrate on doing something about those things. Sometimes even the few problems I am working on overwhelm me, and so I love to do a little thing to help someone just to jumpstart my day. Computer programmers do this all the time, and they even have created places to do it, such as StackOverflow. Do you find the same value in doing little favors? I imagine many requests come in your email (this Q&A request being one). Have you found other places that you check periodically to see if you can do something for someone?

Adam: Since my inbox has been flooded, I’ve had less time to offer help proactively, and find that the majority of my giving involves responding reactively.  That said, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the opportunities for five-minute favors that I encounter on social media. Facebook updates and tweets often draw my attention to questions and needs that I can address.