Pay it forward

Your time is valuable. Use it wisely.


About twenty years ago I asked a man I’d never met to meet me for coffee. It wasn’t a blind date—he’d been recommended to me as an academic who understood the field of technical communication, and I wanted to ask him some questions about graduate programs. We spent an hour or so talking about my interest in what was then called computer-mediated communication. I must have been really into it, because I remember him saying at one point “Why are you so excited about this?”

Based on our conversation, he told me I’d probably like the program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. I’d never heard of it before. I went on to apply, was accepted, got a scholarship. I am grateful every day for the education I received at RPI—I feel lucky to have been able to explore the foundations of our field in a master’s program, when so many people pick up bits and pieces on the job. My position at Razorfish, my first job out of grad school, came directly from the contacts I made at RPI.

In a sense, I owe the trajectory of my successful career to that guy who agreed to meet an unknown 23-year-old woman for coffee. I wish I could thank him, but I don’t remember his name.


I wonder how my life would be different today if that long-ago stranger had a policy of charging young people for networking over coffee.

As my business has become more successful and my public persona has increased, I’ve increasingly received emails from others in my field who essentially want to do the same thing I’m doing. While I love mentoring, I value my time and expertise and have started to charge. I’ve found that those who value my time and expertise are happy to pay the fee.

For years I’ve maintained a personal credo that I’ll give pretty much any person starting out in our field 30 minutes of my time, if they have the wherewithal to come and ask for it. (Don’t all ask at once, now.)

Usually that means a phone call or an email exchange. Sometimes I’ll meet for coffee, given my schedule and availability. I certainly don’t feel compelled to help out every person who comes my way looking for advice, and I tailor my response to the query (a thoughtful email gets a better reply than a tweet) but I make a genuine effort to say “yes” to people who are just starting out.

A few years ago I described this policy to a colleague. I remember him saying “I would never do that, it doesn’t seem like it would be worth it.”

Not everything in our professional lives is a transaction, scrutinized and evaluated against how much it costs us, how much someone should pay. Not every teaching relationship must be formalized—a mentoring opportunity, a coach, an internship. Not every investment of time has to be “worth it.” Sometimes you just have a brief conversation with someone because—why not? You never know what will come of it.

I can’t thank the guy who took the time to meet me for coffee. But I can pay it forward by trying to help other people in a small, vanishingly insignificant way. And if some day, I help someone in a way that changes the very course of their life? I might never even know.

The payback I would want isn’t one billable hour or a free sandwich or even their grateful thanks. I don’t even care if they remember my name. I’d rather they pick up the phone and talk to some future 23-year-old when she asks.