Meeting your heroes in person is always an exciting experience, and that’s all the more true when you’re young. Whether you appreciate their work, respect their personal qualities, or just think they’re really cool, these people can have a major impact on your life, and getting to interact with them in real life is an amazing opportunity.
However, it can also be quite stressful. Speaking for myself, meeting someone whom I highly respect comes with the strong chance that I’ll just emit an incoherent squeaking noise in lieu of an insightful comment, and then slink away to hide in the coat closet for the remainder of the event.
Not everyone is that shy, of course, but it’s easy to get flustered when you come face-to-face with a person you’re really excited to meet. Here’s my advice for how to prepare for these situations, approach them with confidence, and put your best foot forward.
Meeting your idols face to face: the benefits and the challenges
If you’re a high school student who’s working on becoming a competitive college applicant, you’re most likely actively engaged in seeking out special opportunities that reach beyond the typical high school experience. Your efforts in this regard not only look great on college applications, but also set you up for an early start on achieving your educational and career goals.
Sometimes, your awards and accolades will win you admission to places you wouldn’t otherwise be able to access. Other times, your participation in an extracurricular activity or a particular academic interest may bring you into contact with people who are particularly revered in that field. Internships and jobs can create these situations as well.
Once you get to college, and especially if you attend a prestigious school, you’ll have even more opportunities to meet and work with people you admire. They might end up being your professors, academic advisors, visiting scholars, or perhaps even classmates. (Yes, your college classes might very well include Olympic athletes, famous actors, published authors, or other young luminaries.)
Being able to meet, work with, or learn from people you respect deeply is an incredible thing, and if you have the opportunity to do so, you should seize it! That interaction might inspire your career path, give you valuable insight, set up important networking connections for you, or otherwise change the course of your life. At very least, it will be an interesting memory, the kind you might tell your grandchildren.
First, however, you’ll have to set yourself up for a successful interaction with your hero. Knowing the potential importance of this meeting can really stress you out, but the negative effects of stress can prevent you from doing your best to ensure that the meeting goes well. To step outside of this cycle of stress, you can try to anticipate your emotional reaction and prepare for the specific skills you’ll need to handle this situation.
From a major freakout to a meaningful interaction: how to meet your idols
An experience with this kind of potential value deserves some preparation on your end. Below, you’ll find some advice for what you should do when you get your chance to meet someone who’s important to you.
Anticipate and manage your stress level.
If you’re a person who typically has a difficult time dealing with social situations, you probably already know it. Meeting one of your heroes will likely cause even more stress than your usual social situations. It’s worth it to push through the stress, but it can be difficult.
If there’s anything you typically do to ease your mind or deal with stress before a big event, this is the time to do it. Whatever you can do to keep from suffering the negative consequences of stress is probably a good idea, whether that’s taking a long bath, meditating and deep breathing, or distracting yourself with a fun activity. (Check out the CollegeVine blog post 6 Techniques for Dealing with Stress in High School for other ideas.)
Prepare what you’d like to say.
You don’t have to memorize your spiel word for word, and in fact, reciting a prepared speech will probably not help your cause—it’ll sound stilted and artificial rather than easy and natural. Still, you should spend some time beforehand reviewing topics or questions that you’d like to cover, and preparing bullet points out of what you’d like to get across.
Think about the concept of “elevator pitches”—brief but compelling overviews in which you try to sell an idea or yourself to another person. You don’t necessarily want to talk to your hero like you would to an interviewer for a job, but it’s always a good idea to prepare for a meeting in advance by thinking about what you’d like to say and how you can best say it.
Show that you’re interested and engaged.
A common reaction to meeting someone you admire—and a reaction that, as a shy person, I’m intimately familiar with—is the classic “deer in the headlights” position. If you don’t know what to say or do next, it’s very easy to freeze up, gurgle something unintelligible, and smile until the person goes away.
Among other problems with this response, it might give the impression that you’re not particularly interested in the person with whom you’re speaking—something that’s a major problem when your actual feelings are the exact opposite.
Don’t be afraid to show that you’re really interested in meeting this person and hearing what they have to say. There’s nothing wrong with being visibly excited, and most public figures are at least somewhat used to dealing with fans. As long as you focus on their professional output and don’t ask impolite (or downright creepy) personal questions, this will help you, not hurt you. Let your enthusiasm shine through!
Set the stage for further interaction when (and how) that’s appropriate.
It’s not always appropriate or helpful to seek out deeper, more personal contact with someone you’ve only just met. If, for instance, you encountered a celebrity author at a book signing and had a brief chat while they signed your copy, you don’t have much upon which to build a deeper relationship, so it’s probably not appropriate for you to ask for their private contact information at that point.
If you had a more substantive conversation with one of your heroes, however, you may be able to ask for their contact information to follow up with questions, send a thank-you note, or continue a discussion that you weren’t able to finish. As long as you’re respectful and polite (even if you’re rebuffed), there’s nothing wrong with this approach.
In the present day, many well-known people also maintain a public presence on social media services like Twitter and Facebook. They might be amenable to further interaction through these electronic platforms, and this approach might make them more comfortable than sharing their personal email address or the like.
What not to do when you’re interacting with your heroes
While you’re doing your best to present yourself well and get as much value as possible out of your interactions with the people you respect most, there are a few specific things you need to not do in order to make a good impression. Here are a few things to particularly avoid doing in these situations.
Don’t stay in the background.
Sometimes, it’s easiest to not stick out—to stay quiet and not make your presence known. In order to get the most out of your opportunity to meet your heroes, however, you’re going to have to actively fight the impulse you might have to be a wallflower. That means taking active steps toward making interactions happen and putting yourself out there.
As in any other situation that involves trying to build connections with others, whether that’s business networking or socializing, if you don’t reach out proactively, it will be much harder for you to reap the benefits of those interactions. Typically, opportunities to learn and grow don’t just fall out of the sky, and the same is true here.
Don’t talk yourself down.
How many of us fill our accounts of our own activities and accomplishments with qualifiers and disclaimers about how they’re really not a big deal? I certainly do this sometimes, and it’s a bad habit I need to avoid. I’d encourage you to take the same approach.
Many students, especially those who tend to be shy, worry that if they don’t take great pains to show humility, they’ll appear excessively arrogant. Arrogance is definitely something to be avoided, but that doesn’t mean you have to downplay your legitimate accomplishments or interests. Be yourself, and be proud of who you are.
Don’t bring up subjects that are inappropriate to the situation.
If you’re meeting someone socially or in an academic setting, it’s generally not the right time to start a debate or argument, especially on a hot-button issue. These settings have social rules and conventions that you’ll be expected to follow, and politeness and maturity are top priorities. Ignoring these norms will make you stick out—and probably not in a good way.
Similarly, use your common sense when approaching topics that might be sensitive, either for the person in question or for the people around you. You might know some details about a public figure’s private life, but just because those facts are widely know doesn’t mean that person wants to discuss them with you right now.
Don’t monopolize the conversation at the expense of others.
If you do get to meet some of your heroes in high school, it will likely be a situation that involves other people who may be waiting to do the same thing as you. It’s totally reasonable for you to make an effort to try and talk to the person you’ve been waiting to see—you don’t have to be totally deferential to others—but be aware of your surroundings and the time and space you’re taking up.
Whether you’re standing in line to speak with your idol, participating in an informal discussion, or asking a question at a speaking engagement, remember that others are there to interact with that person too, and they deserve their chance to do so. If your question is long or complex, but your time is limited, consider asking for contact information so that you can continue the conversation at a more convenient time.
Don’t forget that your heroes are human beings.
Well-known people are typically used to interacting with fans and the public, but they’re also just people, and they don’t have unlimited time and energy to offer. Sometimes they’re distracted by other matters or have important business to attend to besides hanging around with teenagers. Sometimes they’re tired and just want to go home, not answer in-depth questions.
The people you idolize are not always in the right place to have the discussion that you’d like to have or answer the questions you’d like to have answered, especially if that question is complex or personal. You may feel like you know these people on a deep level due to their public exposure or openness about personal matters, but remember, you don’t actually have a close relationship with them that you can build upon—not yet, anyways.
One final piece of advice I’d like to impart is this: if the situation doesn’t work out in the way you would prefer, don’t sweat it. As mentioned, even your heroes are human, and they might just be having an off day. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you if you don’t immediately click with your hero, and it’s not going to ruin your life forever.
Besides, it’s not an uncommon experience to find that celebrities and other public figures are very different in person from what their public personas would suggest. A scholar giving an interview, a musician who banters with the audience between songs, or a politician addressing their constituents may be acting quite differently from how they act in their day-to-day life.
Even if you’re rebuffed in a way that’s more personal and less pleasant, it’s not the end of the world. You can still respect, appreciate, and admire a person and their work even if your limited personal interactions with them have been less than perfect. Recognizing a person as someone who has influenced you and made a valuable contribution to the world doesn’t necessarily mean they’re someone you’d like to invite over for dinner.
I hope this advice helps you to keep your wits about you and present yourself well when you finally find yourself in the same room as the people you’ve always wanted to meet. These encounters with your heroes are experiences to be treasured. Come prepared!
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