I’ve been on the go since October. It’s been enormously eventful, exciting, tiring, and very educational. London, New York, Washington D.C, and Philadelphia have been cities where I’ve had the opportunity to interact with celebrities and scientists, and they are quite an intimidating bunch.
I learned a lot of things during the International Achievement Summit, but perhaps the most practical and immediate lesson was how to stay calm when mixing with very intimidating people. You’ve got to keep your wits about you!
Before getting into the meat of this blog post, I wanted to share that this trip was absolutely amazing- the “trip of a lifetime” (as cliche as that sounds). The International Achievement Summit is a special event held by the Academy of Achievement. The goal is to unite people who truly excel in what they do with younger people hoping to one day make a substantial impact in the world. The youngsters are nominated to take an all-expense paid trip to London to stay in Claridge’s Hotel or the Connaught (FIVE STARS. MICHELIN STARS. MOVIE STARS). I was able to see a remarkable group of people on this guest list:
There were also plenty of other “Golden Plate” winners from past years like Peter Jackson, Jeremy Irons, Bill Clinton, Anthony Romero and much more. My fellow delegates were also quite extraordinary–from Rhode and Marshall Scholars to young politicians, musicians, and professors.
I’ve never been taken care of like I was at Claridges. There were literally people in the bathroom whose job was to open the faucet for you. Need I say more?
What do you do when you are trying to eat your breakfast and Jeremy Irons comes over to your table and asks if he can join you?
You treat him like any other person and say, “Yes you may,” introduce yourself, and keep eating your breakfast.
“Important” people are used to having others freak out, but honestly, they put on their pants one leg at a time just like anyone else. I’ve been learning slowly after arriving at Harvard last year (lots of fan-girling) that it’s okay to admire people (despite people often being more disappointing in real life), but it’s also important to keep your wits about you. To engage and be in the moment. Fan-girling can happen separately on your own.
For example, at that breakfast with Irons, a Rhode Scholar a Oxford studying English literature sat between us. Of course she literally melted when joined and monopolized him/fan-girled. They were talking about Keats and English things. I love speaking English and reading books, but I am just not on their level, so I decided to finish my eggs and listen.
Eventually, the conversation shifted to young people and communication, and I chimed in and told Mr. Irons about my struggles with up-speaking and sounding confident. In science, like most other areas of life, it’s so important to sound like you know what you are talking about. It gives people the encouragement to actually pay attention and listen to you. It’s such a battle to get people to listen. Irons then paid me a nice compliment by saying that I do not “up-speak” and speak “Rather well. I have an ear for these things.” Then he turned over to the Oxford student between us and said, “You might talk too much.”
She just loved you, Jeremy.
Kind of rude of him, honestly. For her, I’m sure it was a moment when you realize your heroes are not morning people.
You do not have to always be the first person to talk. It’s okay to be quiet and feel things out at first.
TIPS FOR INTERACTING WITH INTIMIDATING PEOPLE
- Say your name clearly! First and last! This may sound obvious, but it can actually be difficult. People will immediately stop listening to you if you do not say who you are. Who you are is worth knowing. Speak up.
- Everyone is insecure, and you in fact may be a little intimidating. This was almost tangible when I had to have lunch with Dr. Luke (yeah, him). He and his entourage were clearly a little on comfortable talking to scientist/medical student people. At one point he tried to argue with me about primate senescence. Awkward. You never know how you might appear to other people. That famous person may not be that smart or kind…or worth your time.
- Treat them like normal. Once you become a fan, the wall is up and an unnecessary mystique forms. Just get to know them and be yourself.
- Be nice to/include everyone. That random person around them may be their spouse/partner. This is a good rule for life, but at this summit I talked more to the spouses of super famous people than the famous people themselves. Examples include Steven Rosenberg‘s wife (who was a nurse and LOVES CASE WESTERN STUDENTS! She said I should always be proud of that and treat nurses with respect! here here!) Brian Kobilka’s wife (who introduced me to Tony Fadell) and Justice Gorsuch’s wife (who is suprisngly British, and asked me some crazy personal questions about sickle cell disease). Eventually, when you talk long enough to the spouse, the famous person will circle around and say hello too! Also, their spouse may actually be 500x more interesting than said famous person.
- People can be awkward. Brush it off. Do not stand around having an awkward conversation with a snobby person. You can talk to someone else. If you wouldn’t tolerate it in real life, why in this kind of setting? Remember, it’s always real life, and those are in fact real people.
- Normal people. Abnormal achievements. At a certain point, you can just let what you have done speak for itself. I have found that people enjoy being around accomplished people who also can connect with others. You do not need to show off.
- You are the expert on you. Come up with a quick blurb about yourself and what you do. Prepare! There is like a 20 second window when these people try to figure out if you are worth engaging with.
- You are there for a reason. Be confident. A mayor of Ithaca, NY and the youngest member of the Israeli parliament were co-delegates with me. It may be very easy for you to understand my confusion on how I was selected to attend this Summit. After about 20 hours, I realized that my insecurity is not important. What matters is that I was given an opportunity to be there, and it’s up to me to make the most of it. It’s up to YOU to make the most of it. There is no time for imposter syndrome.
I have had to return back to these rules when I presented in New York shortly after this summit for a New York Academy of Sciences Meeting, in DC for the American Physiological Society Meeting, and the numerous times I have to talk with potential collaborators and other scientists about what I am doing.
Keep it together because you can. Keep it together because one day people will be fan-girling about meeting you.