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[Part I] What the Thiel Fellows Learnt about Networking from Michael Ellsberg

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The Thiel Fellowship is a program that is kick started by Peter Thiel, the co-founder of Paypal. Twenty youths under the age of 20 years old (i.e. “20 under 20”) are carefully handpicked to take on larger-than-life entrepreneurial ventures over a period of 2 years with $100,000 in funding to support their endeavors. Eventually, 24 brilliant young inaugural recipients received the honor of being part of this life changing program in 2011.

The only catch – the 24 fellows are asked to leave college so they can fully focus on building and scaling their start-ups. Hardly surprising when we are in an era where college dropouts becoming entrepreneurial extraordinaires is no longer a farfetched fantasy.

Most people who are acquainted with the tech and entrepreneurship scene would be familiar of the radical ideals of Peter Thiel like his belief that higher education is a bubble that’s waiting to burst. But don’t quote me on this though – just read his commentary on higher education and you will find out why.

What’s more telling of the spirit of the Fellowship and how it intends to set these young fellows on a journey of real learning, is this quote from Mark Twain that’s plastered on the home page of the Thiel Fellowship,

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education” – Mark Twain

Perhaps one of the hallmark of the program is the excellent training and learning opportunities (read: guest lectures and hands-on entrepreneurial retreats) offered to these young teens to increase their odds at succeeding. Which really makes you wonder, what were you doing when you were a teen?

Michael Ellsberg, the author of The Education of Millionaires: It’s Not What You Think, and It’s Not Too Late and blogger at was invited to conduct a training for the Thiel Fellows on networking. The video of the training is as shown below and I have consolidated Ellsberg’s advice and beefed it up further with my thoughts and experiences about networking. Note that the context of the training is to network effectively to recruit mentors.

Ellsberg starts off with building his case that the most basic lesson about connecting with people with expertise, authority and influence is to give. [7.00]. He goes on to suggest that there are 3 biggest “gifts” young people can give to build relationships with mentors.

1) Give Advice (and Solutions) [8.50]

According to Ellsberg, a common myth that many young people buy into is that “Accomplished people have nothing left to learn” but the reality is that “You have a lot to give and you can be a valuable advisor to these successful people”. He shares that his personal areas of mastery are in copywriting and sales and he actively pitches them as “gifts” for people whom he wants to build relationships with. He goes on to suggest that young people indeed do have a lot to offer be it their technical skills they have or their unique and refreshing perspectives as youths.

This may sound counter-intuitive to most people as we often think of mentors as omniscient sages and all you do as a young Padawan is to be a “sponge that soaks in all the essence”. That is in part, true. But that does not mean the learning has to be unidirectional. In fact, if you are to look at some of the most successful leaders, they pull off amazing feats because they  surround themselves with people who are even more sterling and outstanding than them, especially in areas that are complementary to what they do. They are unabashed in being humble in learning from others or people younger than them because they know tapping on others’ knowledge, skills and wisdom beats them trying to figure out everything on their own.

So the bigger question you may ask is,

“What knowledge, skills and wisdom can I offer that will possibly be of value?”

Well, my short answer is, ask. What I do often enough is to be really upfront, sincere and ask them,

“At this point in time for your [venture, project, business], what are you urgently looking out for? Would there be any areas that I can possibly support you with?”

Most of the times, they will go straight into sharing what their key problems and needs are. It could be a specific area of knowledge or skill set, a sounding board (for which your experiences and involvements will give them a better perspective and reality check), a connection into an industry or organization they like to explore, a drive for participants or attendees for events they are managing or a role they need to be filled up (I was invited to be a panelist for a forum my Professor was moderating by just asking for it).

What you need to do is then to decide if 1) What the other party needs is within your area of proficiency and mastery, and if yes, 2) How confident are you in solving the problem he (she) has thrown out?

Chances are that if you are able to own the problem the other party has thrown out on the table and solve it with your own merit, you’d have provided substantial value for this potential mentor of yours. This will be a huge leap in establishing a meaningful relationship with your mentor. Otherwise, the only sensible thing to do is to refer them to someone you know (read Point 2) who will be more competent at getting the job done. You don’t want to commit a huge blunder at the task given and have your mentor do disaster recovery because you had over promised and under delivered. Remember first impression applies in such situations as well.

Action Steps

1. Write down a list of your key skills and areas of competencies. It could be in writing, training, hosting, facilitation, deejaying, research, technical modeling, application development, baking, scriptwriting, singing, film production, project management etc.

Do what you are passionate about and the whole process becomes a joy for you. There have been so many times I have solved a problem for someone impeccably and yet get paid for what I enjoy doing – how’s that for a win-win? Keep working your skill to perfection and one day, you may just be surprised at how people will be coming to you to solve their problems instead.

This list can also include a rundown of your expert domains of knowledge like Asian politics, internet marketing, social media trends and best practices in Asia, oil rig R&D in Asia Pacific, leading mobile technologies, poverty in America, causes and problems of dementia, legal frameworks etc.

Knowledge can be stored in forms of past conference papers, research projects, interviews, studies, readings that you have done in the past. Be unafraid to share your key insights and takeaways. While you may not always be a subject matter expert, your insights may just nudge your mentor in the right direction and set him or her towards a new trajectory that may be more forwarding than not. Never estimate that slight nudge you can deliver.

2. Actively and frequently ask the golden question,

“At this point in time for your [venture, project, business], what are you urgently looking out for? Would there be any areas that I can possibly support you with?”

or the variants of it, to people whom you like to establish relationships with. Listen intently and check back if you have gotten the right message.

3. Commit to the job only when you know you are capable of doing a good job. Execute the task wholeheartedly and put your best foot forward. Treat every task that you’ve been given as an opportunity to shine and showcase your true character. After all, if you give your all to support your mentor, trust that he or she will go all out to support you in your endeavors.

Part II of ‘What the Thiel Fellows Learnt about Networking from Michael Ellsberg’ will cover the next two pieces of advice from Ellsberg’s presentation.

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