On the Campus
June 6, 2007:
By Adam Gottesfeld ’07
Most Princeton students love to procrastinate in writing their
dean’s date papers. Ryan Marrinan ’07, from Los Angeles,
was no exception. But while the majority of undergraduates fill
their time by updating their Facebook profiles or watching videos
on YouTube, Marrinan was discussing Soto Zen Buddhism via e-mail
with Randy Komisar, a partner at the venture capital firm Kleiner
Perkins Caufield and Byers, and asking Google CEO Eric Schmidt ’76
via e-mail when he had been happiest in his life. (Schmidt’s
Prior to his e-mail, Marrinan had never contacted Komisar. He
had met Schmidt, at Princeton University trustee, only briefly at
an academic affairs meeting of the trustees in November. A self-described
“naturally shy kind,” Marrinan said he would never have
dared to randomly e-mail two of the most powerful men in Silicon
Valley if it weren’t for Tim Ferriss ’00, who offered
a guest lecture in Professor Ed Zschau ’61’s ELE 491
“High-Tech Entrepreneurship” class. Ferriss challenged
Marrinan and his fellow seniors in the class to contact high-profile
celebrities and CEOs and get their answers to questions they have
always wanted to ask.
For extra incentive, Ferriss promised the student who could contact
the most hard-to-reach name and ask the most intriguing question
a round-trip plane ticket anywhere in the world.
“I believe that success can be measured in the number of
uncomfortable conversations you’re willing to have. I felt
that if I could help students overcome the fear rejection with cold-calling
and cold e-mail, it would serve them forever,” Ferriss said.
“It’s easy to sell yourself short, but when you see
classmates getting responses from people like [former president]
George Bush, the CEOs of Disney, Comcast, Google, and HP, and dozens
of other impossible-to-reach people, it forces you to reconsider
your self-set limitations.”
Ferriss is the founder and CEO of BrainQUICKEN, a dietary supplement
company, in which he has outsourced almost all administrative functions
so that he has become, in his words, “expendable.” He
recently published The 4-Hour Workweek, in which he writes about
his experience of maximizing efficiency and free time. Ferris lectures
to the students of “High-Tech Entrepreneurship” each
semester about creating a startup and designing the ideal lifestyle.
“I participate in this contest every day,” said Ferriss.
“I do what I always do: find a personal e-mail if possible,
often through their little-known personal blogs, send a two- to
three-paragraph e-mail which explains that you are familiar with
their work, and ask one simple-to-answer but thought-provoking question
in that e-mail related to their work or life philosophies. The goal
is to start a dialogue so they take the time to answer future e-mails
– not to ask for help. That comes after at least three or
four e-mail exchanges.”
With “textbook execution of the Tim Ferriss Technique,”
as he put it, Marrinan was able to strike up a bond with Komisar.
In his initial e-mail, he talked about reading one of Komisar’s
Harvard Business Review articles and feeling inspired to
ask him, “When were you happiest in your life?” After
Komisar replied with references to Tibetan Buddhism, Marrinan responded,
“Just as words are inadequate to explain true happiness, so
too are words inadequate to express my thanks.” His e-mail
included his personal translation of a French poem by Taisen Deshimaru,
the former European head of Soto Zen. An e-mail relationship was
formed, and Komisar even e-mailed Marrinan a few days later with
a link to a New York Times article on happiness.
Contacting Schmidt proved more challenging. For Marrinan, the
toughest part was getting Schmidt’s personal e-mail address.
He e-mailed a Princeton dean asking for it. No response. Two weeks
later, he e-mailed the same dean again, defending his request by
reminding her that he had previously met Schmidt. The dean said
no, but Marrinan refused to give up. He e-mailed her a third time.
“Have you ever made an exception?” he asked. The dean
finally gave in, he said, and provided him with Schmidt’s
“I know some of my classmates pursued the alternative scattershot
technique with some success, but that’s not my bag,”
Marrinan said, explaining his perseverance. “I deal with rejection
by persisting, not by taking my business elsewhere. My maxim comes
from Samuel Beckett, a personal hero of mine: ‘Ever tried.
Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’
You won’t believe what you can accomplish by attempting the
impossible with the courage to repeatedly fail better.”
Nathan Kaplan ’07, another participant in the contest. was
most proud of the way that he was able to contact former Newark
mayor Sharpe James. Because James had made a campaign contribution
to Al Sharpton, the website www.fundrace.org listed James’
homes address. Kaplan then input James’ address into an online
search-by-address phone directory, through which he received the
former mayor’s phone number. Kaplan left a message for James,
and a few days later finally got to ask him about childhood education.
Ferriss is proud of the effort students have put into his contest.
“Most people can do absolutely awe-inspiring things,”
he said. “Sometimes they just need a little nudge.”
Gottesfeld ’07, a Woodrow Wilson School major, is from Los
Photo by Hyunseok