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Proactivity in Your Inbox

An email can build a door

The other day, an email popped up in my inbox that began with this:

Dear Dr. Duckworth,

I am a high school junior seeking opportunities to explore my interest in psychology…

“I don’t have room this year,” I thought and was about to reply with a polite thank-you-but-no-thank-you. But the second paragraph stopped me short:

When I was a competitive figure skater, my coach told me to watch your TED Talk on grit to help me prepare for competitions. Though I was young at the time, I found it incredibly moving and inspiring. Ever since then, with everything I do, I always think about how gritty I am being in the situation….When I started thinking about seeking an internship, I thought of you first….It would be an amazing honor and fruitful experience to work alongside you and learn from you.

Ah, flattery! It works every time, doesn’t it? I read on.

In addition to that, my personal experience in many competitive sports, volunteering for Special Olympics for seven years (and counting), being the youngest employee at age 14 at Chick-fil-A, and transitioning from a big public school to a selective boarding school far away from home all contributed to my realization of the power of psychology, and more importantly grit. I also took AP psychology as a freshman, which laid a good foundation for me on basic psychology concepts.

Now I thought, “This young woman seems exceptional! I wonder if I could find a way to help her.”

And then, as my mind raced through possibilities, I got to the end of her note:

As your intern, I can help you with the following: compile and organize information, summarize findings in both verbal and written formats, and analyze any data that already exists or I collect. I would love the opportunity to discuss more with you about myself and your research. I appreciate your consideration.

My fingers hovered above the keyboard as I debated what to do. On one hand, I didn’t plan to have interns this summer. On the other hand, it was undeniable that this young person was a paragon of proactivity.

What would you have done?

A scholarly review on proactivity by Character Lab Playbook author Adam Grant opens with a quote attributed to comedian Milton Berle: If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.

Indeed, it is the future-focused, change-oriented people—the ones who build doors—who make the world a better place.

Don’t underestimate the power of proactivity.

Do show a young person in your life how to be proactive. Teach them to write an email introducing themselves to a total stranger. Edit their first attempts to be sure they know to keep it short, specific, and flattering. As for the high school student whose email did exactly that? Well…one video interview and two recommendations later, I have a (remote) summer intern. I can’t wait until she starts.

With grit and gratitude,