On January 1, I made an unusual resolution. I committed to sending one hand-written letter per week—and not to relatives, or friends, or former teachers, but to other professionals. What would these letters say? That would depend on the week and the person. (Basically, I’d wing it.) My only rule was the letter wouldn’t include any requests; I didn’t want it to come off as a polite way of asking for something.
At the end of the first week, I actually had the perfect reason to write a letter. I’d been working with a PR rep on a story and wanted to thank her for her helpfulness, responsiveness, and all-around great attitude. Not only did she give me everything I needed for the article, but she also took the time to answer my questions about the public relations industry and her career. I’m interested in PR, so getting an entry-level employee’s perspective was super helpful.
I dropped a letter saying all that in the mail. A week later, I got a happy email.
“I almost never get mail at work, so I was super excited!” it read. “By the way, did you have any luck finding a summer internship? If you forward me your resume, I’ll pass it along to our VP!”
I’d mentioned I was looking for a summer position during one of our conversations, but we’d never brought it up again, and I certainly hadn’t mentioned it in the letter. While my gesture wasn’t done out of self-interest, it may end up transforming my career—and even if I don’t get the internship, I’ll have turned a casual professional relationship into a stronger connection.
The second week rolled around. I decided to send a letter to my mentor; we’re always talking over email, Skype, and phone, but this would be a nice change of pace. I updated her on my current projects, asked her how her startup was doing, and described how I was incorporating the feedback she’d recently given me.
My mentor sent a text thanking me “for the wonderful note.” I figured that was that. Then I got a package from her, containing a book she’d loved and her own hand-written letter. Now we regularly communicate by snail mail. It’s a great tradition, and it’s brought another dimension to our relationship.
I decided to write my third letter to a writer who contributes to one of the same websites as I do. Not only did she inspire me to apply for the job, but I love the honesty, humor, and charm of her pieces. I sent the letter to the magazine headquarters so they could forward it to her.
She sent me an email in response, saying my words had made her day, she’d checked out some of my work, and she’d give my name to a couple editors she knew who were looking for writers.
Sending someone a hand-written letter shows effort and gratitude. If you don’t have an ask—especially if you don’t have an ask!—it turns out it’s a gesture people really, really want to reward you for. Even without the tangible benefits of my letter campaign, I’d definitely keep it up. It’s one of the simplest ways you can strengthen a professional tie.
Starting is simple: Buy yourself a nice pack of cards and some stamps. Then, look for opportunities to send a letter to other people you’ve worked with or (like the case of the writer I admired) want to work with. Almost anyone is fair game—a person in the office next to you, a person in the office across the world from you, a former co-worker, your current boss, an intern who’s been extra helpful, someone who’s doing great things in your industry, an inspiring speaker or author; I could go on and on.
If you don’t know someone’s address, you can always ask him or her. Just say, “Hey! I’m sending you something in the mail, can I get your address?” However, if you want to make your letters a surprise, you’ll have to be a bit more creative. For people working in the same space, leave your note on their desks. For others, send it to their workplace (finding the address should only take two seconds on Google).
The only rules are you can’t ask for anything, the person can’t be from your personal life, and you have to send one letter a week.
If you’ll be joining me, let me know how it goes @ajavuu! I'll write a letter to every person who tweets a picture of his or her letter and tags me.