I ended up in a conversation about networking the other day. Lots of people are uncomfortable with it, which I can understand. I have the usual bag of social anxieties as well as my individualized difficulties with social and quasi-social situations. Furthermore, the concept of “networking” is often presented or explained in a way that makes it seem false or manipulative. It seems as though a person who is suggesting that you “network” is suggesting that you use people for your personal gain. That they are telling you to view everyone you meet or know under the lens of “how is this person useful to me”?
And, honestly, I have read many articles about job-searching, about networking, and relationship-building that do seem focused on assessing how other people might be useful to you and on leveraging another person’s skills or relationships to your own personal advantage.
That feels distasteful, and I think that it is distasteful.
On the other hand, the two jobs I have had in my life that I was really well-suited for, that I really enjoyed, that I was happiest to have? I got both those jobs because I mentioned, in passing, to people I knew rather casually that I was looking for a job. Not only did I say that I was looking for a job, I explained in about two sentences why and what sort of job I was looking for and how what few facts that person knew about me fit with the sort of work I wanted. Then I let the conversation go to something far more interesting than me or my desires for a better job.
In other words, the best jobs I’ve ever had came to me through networking.
It all sounds oogy and false and smarmy, but it does not have to be. In fact, if you’re doing it right, it isn’t.
I have a friend who is constantly meeting people and introducing them to one another. He’s very interested in people and manages to get himself involved in all sorts of strange and wonderful things. It reminds me of what they taught us about campaigning in Camp Obama. People really like him because he’s sincerely interested
Writing it all out, of course, circles it back around to seeming calculated and manipulative. Spending lunch with this friend, however? That just feels charming.
Networking, assuming you can call what my friend does “networking”, is just healthy social interaction. You connect with people by asking them about themselves and about their work and engage them on topics of mutual interest.Then, when the conversation turns to a question about you, or your work, you bring in your story. If you’re honestly engaging people, you’re not selling anything; you’re really just making small talk. Small talk can be considered genuine, even though it’s not generally meaningful, when it reflects your actual interests (where “interests” means “things you find interesting and engaging”).
If, while honestly engaging people, you remember to present yourself in the best light possible and create an idea of your interests and capabilities in other people’s minds, you are creating small talk that serves your other sort of interests (where “interests” means “concerns or matters of importance to your goals or well-being”). And that’s networking.
So, no, it’s not sales and false conversations and manipulating the people around you. It’s just another social and professional skill. It is asking a favor of friends, colleagues and relative strangers. But the favor is not “find me a job”, the favor is “remember who I am”
I’m not particularly good at it, myself. In fact, I screwed up a couple chances to engage interesting people in interesting conversations about the kind of work we both like to do recently.
Everything is baby steps.
This week’s baby step is thinking about how to quickly and accurately answer the question “so, what do you do?” so I can talk to people about something other than my resume.
I am a “policy analyst”–this means I identify a policy goal, research possible ways to implement that goal (as well as barriers and unintended consequence), develop strategies for implementation, and then advocate for those strategies.
Right now, I do this for an organization that works within the courts, narrowly, and justice systems, widely.