When Maya Shankar was 9, her mother decided to pay a visit to Juilliard. Maya was already a passionate, talented, and hardworking violinist at a young age, so why not go learn from the best? They knew no one at the school, but drove up to New York City anyway. Maya and her mother ended up bumping into a student in the elevator, then meeting her instructor. She played for them and blew them away. Through this, Maya earned a spot in Juilliard’s pre-college program.
Now, Maya is Senior Advisor for Social and Behavioral Sciences at the White House (so incredibly cool), a role which she landed— taking inspiration from her mother— by writing a cold email to a White House advisor.
I discovered this story in an episode of the very excellent podcast, Hidden Brain. The host, Shankar Vedantam, jokingly dubbed this the “Juilliard Method.” It’s the act of being bold and reaching out (typically with a cold email), even when your chances of success seem wildly slim.
This method came up in some recent conversations with friends, in which we enthusiastically agreed that it was worthwhile. In fact, some of our most interesting experiences came from a simple cold email. For example, when I was 16 I read Poor Economics by Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee. I found development fascinating and reached out to all the professors whose research was featured in the book, hoping to learn more. I somehow ended up working for Michael Kremer, a pioneer in randomized control trials in development economics, over the summer. From then on, I realized that people weren’t so far away and inaccessible as they seem, and that my youthful precociousness could in fact get me quite far.
In talking about this habit, people have asked me where it comes from. I didn’t really know how to answer on the spot— perhaps I’m just a bit irrational. But upon some more reflection, I realize there are certain traits that my friends and I all share.
We’re hungry to learn more about the world and dive deeper into our interests. We don’t always reach out because we want something, but because we believe that we can learn a tremendous amount from other people’s experiences and perspectives.
We’re (generally) confident in ourselves and unfazed with rejection. We know our chances of getting the outcome we want is slim, but we try anyway. And we maximize our chance for response by being thoughtful and making a clear case.
Belief in serendipity
We know that serendipity is powerful, and that there’s possibility for it anywhere. Someone I admire once told me to “maximize your serendipity,” which stuck with me. You don't need to know exactly where you're going (life is random and strange, after all!), but you can cast a wide net, absorb and learn, and enjoy the unexpected encounters along the way.
And of course, we are lucky as relatively privileged millennials. The world is vast but shrinks through our screens and increasing interconnectedness. Somehow, we inherited a growth mindset and peculiar zeal; we decided to bulldoze barriers of age and status in effort to engage with the amazing, interesting people in it. To my family, schools, and other environments that have fostered this in me— I am very grateful.