It never hurts to ask (Or how a high school kid scored an interview with the Secretary of Defense)

One of my dad’s favorite sayings when I was a kid was, “Just ask. If you don’t ask, you’ll never get what you want. The worst anyone can do is say, ‘No.'” Some times an ask would get you a free refill at a restaurant or a couple bucks off of a price at a rummage sale.

For Teddy Fischer, a high school student at Seattle-area high school, the “ask” got him an interview with James Mattis, the United States secretary of defense:

In May, Fischer, who will be a junior at the Seattle-area high school in the fall, came across a Washington Post article about President’s Trump’s longtime bodyguard. The photo showed Trump’s bodyguard walking with a stack of papers, and on a yellow piece of paper was Mattis’s cell phone number.

Fischer called the number. No one responded, and Fischer didn’t leave a message.

So he texted Mattis instead, stating who he was, that he was from Mattis’s home state, Washington, and that he was writing an article on US foreign policy. (Fischer wasn’t — at the time.)

Fischer saved the number in his phone as “Jim M.” A week later, while in his journalism class, Fischer looked down at his phone to see “Jim M’ calling.

The 45-minute phone call led to a 6,000-word article with a man who generally shuns the media spotlight and avoids spending copious amounts of time with reporters. You can read the article here and a full transcript of the interview here.

Asking for an interview is one thing students repeatedly tell me they fear more than anything. I get it. As a reporter, I often would dial six digits of a phone number and then pause before hitting that final button. I tended to have to buck myself up before I approached a source in person or tried to nose into a conversation to pry away some one-on-one time with a potential interviewee. The thing students say to me most is what I have said in my own head as I gritted my teeth in advance of an interview: “That person is not going to want to talk to me.”

That might be true, but you shouldn’t take that opportunity off the table because you are afraid the person will reject you. Consider this:

Near the end of the interview, Fischer asked Mattis why he called him back, out of all the people who want to talk to him.

“You left a message there and I was going through listening to the messages and deleting them,” Mattis said. “But you’re from Washington state. I grew up in Washington state on the other side of the mountains there on the Columbia River. I just thought I’d give you a call.”

In other words, it never hurts to ask.


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