Avoiding the Royal Touch
When and how to email important people
This is the 29th installment of 774: weekly lessons from history about science, technology, and the miscellaneous.
Avoiding the Royal Touch
And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, and though she had spent all her living on physicians, she could not be healed by anyone. She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment, and immediately her discharge of blood ceased. And Jesus said, “Who was it that touched me?” When all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the crowds surround you and are pressing in on you!” But Jesus said, “Someone touched me, for I perceive that power has gone out from me.” And when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling, and falling down before him declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”
In a recent interview, the writer Visa Veesamyspeculated about how a very old belief in the healing touch of kings has been transmogrified into the healing touch of high-status celebrities in our current age:
Back when there were kings and stuff, people would bring their sick children to the king and they would believe that if the king touched them, they would be healed. And the interesting thing is, I don’t think that we have evolved past that. I think we still have the concept of the Royal Touch, but now we associate it with celebrities. If you go on r/bodybuilding, you can see that people have this thing with Arnold Schwarzenegger. He hangs out on that forum and someone will write this sob story about how they try to work out and it’s not working. And then Schwarzenegger will appear in the comments and he will say “you can do it and you will be great!” Then they reply like their life has been changed and say “Oh my god, my life is changed! Senpai has noticed me. I’m going to turn my life around”… The utterances that Schwarzenegger makes… anyone could make them! Your friend could say it to you.
Some people really will kick their workouts into high gear if Arnold tells them to, even if he said it 1,000 times before. But Visa’s quote is drawn from a broader conversation about a) why you should contact interesting, high-status people, b) how to go about contacting these people and prove to them you aren’t wasting their time with questions, and c) making sure that you are in fact not wasting their time. Busy, important people who get the sense that you’re only contacting them to touch their robe will likely be turned off by your cold email. It is also easy to delude yourself into thinking that the email you’re sending has more earnest intellectual motivation than asking for the royal touch because the desire to get attention from high-status people is a very base one. Your brain is going to easily do the mental backflips necessary to convince you that what you’re doing is the correct thing.
To review: you should be cold emailing interesting people to learn from them, they can easily detect when you're just using them for their Royal Touch, and it’s very easy to not realize that’s what you’re doing. How do you make sure that when you cold email someone important you aren’t just doing it for their Royal Touch?
Tyler Cowen is notoriously easy to contact via email for someone so well-known and highly regarded. For example, I once emailed him a question in college. He responded within 24 hours. That same week, he sat down and recorded a podcast with Mark Zuckerberg and Patrick Collison.It still amazes me that the man who was invited to a public conversation with two billionaires took the time to reply to a likely very silly-sounding email from a mediocre college student who he does not know. While I was incredibly humbled by this interaction, I became very self-conscious about sending more emails to Tyler Cowen and created a better way of vetting the emails I send to busy, important people.
I begin by typing out the email I initially want to send. It probably includes a question or a query for advice; possibly a link to something I wrote with a generic request for feedback. Then I put my own email in the address bar and send it. When I receive the draft of my own email, I try to think like the recipient and answer the email in a reply to myself. This is the test of the quality of my email. If I can sit down and quite easily drum up the kind of response that I think Tyler Cowen may send to my email, my initial email was not a very good one. Why bother Tyler Cowen if I already know the answer to my own question? So I respond to my own email with the answer that I think Tyler Cowen might give. Am I satisfied with the response? Would getting that response actually answer my question or scratch the itch I had to talk about this subject? If it doesn’t, I respond to “Tyler’s” fictitious response with a clarification of what I actually want to know and again send that to myself. I continue this process until I can’t predict with some degree of certainty what he might say to my question. That is the question I actually want to be answered. I cannot pretend to know how everyone will respond to my cold emails, but if I think I know what they will say, it is best not to send that email and to formulate a much better one. The most frequent occurrence is that as I begin this process, I quickly realize I already know the answer to my own question and I’m just looking for some reassurance or general advice that I already know, in which case it is time to close Gmail and move on to something else. Following these steps has led to sending fewer cold emails, but receiving a much higher response rate on the ones that I do send.
The ability to freely and instantaneously communicate with important people from across the world is one of the most special things about the time in which we live. Most interesting, well-known people won’t respond to emails from people they don’t know, but the chance that they do is dramatically increased if they can quickly tell that you want something more substantive from them than attention.