Merriam Webster defines networking as: A group of people who exchange information, contacts, and experience for professional or social purposes. Though I agree this is a reasonably accurate definition, I think it’s only fair that a warning be attached, stating something along the lines of: may cause sweating, rapid heart rate, and the distinct emotional response of feeling like a huge loser.
Recently, I’ve made it my goal to expand my circle of industry professionals. Unfortunately, a large portion of my networking involves me leaning against a wall attempting to perform one of my favorite magic tricks. The trick requires holding a plastic cup of wine in one hand and a flimsy paper plate precariously stacked with cheese in the other, and then (with no hands left to spare) navigating a way to get the cheese from the plate and into my mouth. Tada! Though this is a pretty impressive feat, it rarely attracts adoring fans. Usually it’s just my way of looking like I’m actually doing something. In reality all I’m doing is unsuccessfully fooling other networkers into believing that I’m a confident individual who just happens to be really excited about the refreshments and nibbles.
All this is to say that, currently, networking creates a sensation in me comparable to being in public naked while also having a tooth pulled… sans Novocain. The question is why? Why is it so hard to walk up to people with common interests and form some kind of dialogue?
I’ve listened to many professionals, life coaches, and the occasional homeless person relay tips on networking. A few of these inspirational gems include: Be Confident-if you’re not into you, no one else will be; Be Genuine-it’s not about wanting something from them, it’s about what you can give; Be Positive-no one wants to hear about how much you hate your boss or the weird rash you’ve recently acquired. I agree with all of these, I really do. BUT, how the hell do you do it? How do you walk up to a complete stranger and be all of these things? In any other situation if a completely unknown person comes up to you and starts confidently and genuinely explaining how they can help you, you either look for the nearest exit route, pretend like you don’t speak English or suddenly remember that you’re actually deaf.
I’ve met a handful of people who are amazing at networking. I wish I could go back in time with them and see how they started. Was there a time when they didn’t personally know another soul in the room? How did they conquer this? Currently, coming in contact with one of these great networkers is as magical to me as I imagine it must be to spot a unicorn on a subway platform.
The conclusion that I’ve come to, at this point, is that networking is like anything else in life. You’ve got to take the good with the bad. Sometimes you’re going to be on your game and work the room like a pro. Other times, you’re going to be the person who is overly interested in the cheese selection. Unfortunately, we don’t get to choose how the stars align. What we do get to choose is whether we show up. Very little connecting is going to happen sitting on your couch watching a show about a dome that covers half a town. Although it may feel more comfortable to watch highly paid actors devise ways to infiltrate said dome, it’s not going to lead to any kind of exchange for social or professional purposes. And, hey, even if you don’t connect with a single person, at least you got some free, hard-earned cheese out of it.