Tuesday, August 12, 2014

How to network and not to network (by a bad networker)

I am a bad networker.

Well, I'm probably not as bad as I used to be. The need to "network" was first impressed upon me rather late in life, because I was particularly resistant to having that sort of impression made upon me in the first place. It was toward the end of graduate school, when it became apparent that simply sending out CVs and writing samples and waiting for the interview invitations to roll in was not going to work. (I can't quite convey how shocking this news really was to me. I was that naive--and that resistant to networking.) My adviser suggested going to conferences, even ones I was not presenting at (which constituted the almost infinitely greater majority), and--get this--hand out business cards.

How the hell was I supposed to actually accomplish this was not clear. This particular culture did not seem to come with a ritual of exchanging cards upon introduction. Let's just skip ahead now and say I at the first and only conference where I attempted this, I managed to rid myself of precisely one card. I did it by interrupting the conversation of someone I had talked to on the shuttle, saying "Do you want a card?," thrusting it at her, and then racing off, my face hot with shame.

That was the last networking I did for about a decade.

For some people, networking seems to come quite a bit more naturally. Not (as I was taught) because they are cynical users of others, always alert for opportunities to advance their own interests and equally blind to the pain their self-advancement inflicts on those they use and then cast aside like so many used tissues--but because they understand that people need other people just to get through life. Professional life (and related stuff like, you know, promoting your novel) is part of the life that we need help with. Asking for help is not the same as using.

This is especially--and, in fact only--true if you approach the whole networking process with the mindset of trying to help others. Of course one can never set one's mind purely on this goal (by "one," I mean myself, anyway)--but I think it's worth trying to focus on opportunities to assist others, particularly at first. To piggyback on my last post, let's say you want to join a writing group. If you only want to join so that others will help you with your work, you'll have a problem. People will notice that you show up only when you have a story under review. They may not kick you out, but they won't feel like you're fully part of the group.

To network effectively, you must sincerely want to be part of something larger than yourself, to do your part in meeting the group's goals--even if those goals include each individual's desire to advance. We all want to succeed, and we don't have to help others succeed at our own expense. In the same way, we don't have to succeed at others' expense.

Networking, done sincerely, just means helping each other. It's really that simple. I wish I'd figured that out a lot earlier.

1 comment:

Vicky Charles said...

Great post! I'm awful at networking; I never want to give people my card because I don't want them to think I'm only interested in their business rather than chatting to them! This is a good way to look at it - that we're all helping each other.