Over the last year, I have turned from somebody with a lot of time and relatively few social contacts to maintain into someone quite busy and well-networked. I'm by no means close to the top of the busyness hierarchy. But, I've climbed high enough to learn some lessons that I wish I knew before, when I had a lot of time and even more unearned confidence.
So here you go for what I've found, so that you shall make wiser life decisions than my younger self.
Note: The intended message of this post is not "Don't reach out to busy people!", but "Do reach out, and have these things in mind to make it more likely to get a response/if you don't get one."
This is the one rule to rule them all - everything else I write here is just variations on it.
For example: Let's assume world-leading AGI alignment researcher Paul Christiano has put extensive research into finding the optimal soap dispenser, not only in regards to functionality and aesthetics, but also in regards to price. I still shouldn't ask him which soap dispenser to buy.
For even if he was the world-leading expert on buying cheap high-quality soap dispensers, it would be very unwise of me to waste one of his afternoons on a soap dispenser shopping tour. He is not the only one who could help me with that. And, the question which soap dispenser to pick for my bathroom is not very important in the first place. It would be unfortunate if we were to live in one of the branches of reality where humanity goes extinct because I wasted Paul Christiano's time on soap dispenser advice.
And, I hope that Christiano thinks the same and would never talk to me again if I were to make such a request. For I, too, care about the survival of humanity, and would prefer others to stop me if I threaten it.
In my undergrad years, I studied continental philosophy and classical philology and was very, very proud of the aesthetic quality of my writing. Thus, I annoyed many a professor with way too flowery and way too long walls of text that could have been one sentence. Some professors found me adorable, others didn't quite appreciate me eating pieces of their time that they could have spent on, say, Wittgenstein instead. So don't be me, keep things as concise and clear as possible.
The complementary failure mode to sending busy people walls of text is giving so little info that they don't know why you reach out in the first place. I usually at least read long messages, though I may not respond. However, I tend to procrastinate responding to "Hi. How are you?" until I forget about it. I usually don't want to expend time on the dance of politeness before you tell me what you want, and it would feel too awkward to respond with a bold "What do you want?" Thus, I'll usually not respond at all and never even get the opportunity to decide whether I can make time for your request.
One of the perks of being around for a while in any field is that over time, you get to know a ton of people, and that these people give you quick summaries of their favorite writings. So, I know a ton of people I could point you towards for all kinds of stuff, and I can recommend orders of magnitude more books to you than I have read myself. Writing lists of names and book titles is quick and easy, writing down my own opinions takes time and effort I, in case of doubt, can't and shouldn't afford.
So, busy people are way more likely to respond positively if you ask them for a reading list or introductions than for other types of favors. Plus: Others judge us by the quality of the introductions we make. If you filibuster me with lengthy texts, or demand favors from me I can't really squeeze into my schedule, I might be very weary to introduce you to someone who would be useful for you, but whose time you might disrespect - because then, I'd lose standing with that person and they'd be less likely to make time for other people I send their way.
If you have a call or a conference 1-on-1 with someone more senior than you, make sure that you know what you want to ask - and what you should rather not, because someone more junior might answer it just as well.
As a 20-year-old edgy hippie, I sometimes struck up conversations with tipsy beggars. (Or they with me, because my ascetic environmentalist uniform at times had me fit the crowd quite well.)
I loved that: It gave me tiny glimpses into worlds so different from mine. I learned a bunch of things about the human condition from these exchanges that my peers who liked to stick to their bubbles will never experience. Yet, I don't really make time for conversations with tipsy beggars anymore, because there are dozens of conversations I could have at any moment, and those with tipsy beggars are rarely the most valuable ones anymore.
So, if I don't make time for you, or don't even respond, that doesn't mean that I disregard you as a person. It means that my inbox is overflowing and I have to prioritize, no matter how much I'd like to give you all the care and attention you deserve.
The more central you grow in any field, the more requests you get, and the more often you have to say "no". And many humans are not very comfortable with letting others down. So, you can make things easier for us by explicitly encouraging a "no" in your messages:
If you get a "no" from us, responding with something like "Good that you prioritize. :)" can save us a lot of heartbreak, and surprise us positively in a way that makes it more likely we'll respond positively in the future.
If you make your request swift, transparent, and a "no" easy, I think no busy person ever will feel annoyed by it, even if they don't respond. So - if you heed this advice, please have a strong bias towards reaching out over not doing so. I suspect that way more value gets lost by people under- rather than overcommunicating, both with acquaintances and strangers.
And thus, I solemnly apologize to everyone whose time I wasted while I was still learning these lessons. Just so you know, I think you were right to prioritize other things.
Useful to keep in mind, especially the point of getting an introduction to the next person.
But I want to point out that it's also easy to undershoot. Many people hesitate to ask questions or contact new people.
It makes me sad when people waste hours on something that I can answer / fix in minutes.
Another thing is to keep time spent / saved in mind. A well crafted message, that's easy to understand and only requires a short answer, is much harder to write than going back and forth a few times.
If you spend 100x the time you save the other person, it's probably not worth it in most non-Paul-Christiano-cases.
Agreed - I added the 7th point to the list now to account for this.