• Tue, Jun 11 2013

Bullish: How to Network When You’d Really Rather Settle In With a Good Book

how to network

Jennifer Dziura writes career and life advice weekly on TheGloss. Here is an archive, and here is an archive of Bullish columns from our sister site TheGrindstone.

I’ve been in my career, as a full-time copywriter and freelance writer, for six years, and I still feel as if I have no strong connections. At this point, I sense my career has stalled, and not being able to network has held me back from moving forward.

I’ve tried networking before. While earning an undergraduate degree, I attended a networking seminar, and being that it was 2005, the speaker told us to “Contact experts at trade publications.” This befuddled me at the time: Why would someone with an established career want to even help, let alone respond to, an inquiry from a “lesser-than”? Isn’t networking a mutual give-and-take relationship?

Two years later, while earning a graduate degree, I spoke with a career counselor, who asked me to contact school alumni for “informational interviews.” A few responded to me, but from there, I didn’t know where to go. How do you keep them interested? What’s the protocol for developing a networking relationship?

By luck, I found a full-time job in my field, but in the four years I have worked there, I haven’t gone to a single networking or industry event. Where I work, you can only go to such events if you make sales for the company. I don’t have a sales personality or appearance, and I fear going to such events would make a negative impression for my workplace.

I don’t have the usual network of friends and family, either, and my coworkers are the gossiping type. Even though I have managed to get somewhere (and score freelance clients on occasion in my own time), this seems to be as far as I can get.

What is your advice for a person with zero connections to get started with networking? How do you get to events where you don’t have to represent a company? What’s your take on LinkedIn? And, once you have initially communicated with someone, how do you create a relationship?

-Wallflowery

Dear Flowery,

“Contact experts at trade publications” was pretty cool advice in 1992, so it’s sad that someone told you to do that in 2005. That’s not too far from “Publish your AOL email address on the awning of your bakery.”

In this country, we really do sell people an education and then shove them out into the world with nothing else. When I was in college, it was common knowledge that our career counselors were good for herding people through the formalized hiring process for investment banking and consulting, and not good for much else. If anyone has worked with a college counselor who can tell you how to promote yourself through social media, or run a successful campaign on Kickstarter, or just be a freelancer in general (creating contracts, setting rates, collections), please, leave a comment. I’d love to hear about this mythical unicorn.

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  • titsmcgee

    I have a similar networking problem, only I’m an extrovert. But a very specific kind of extrovert. I’m great at the kind of open-hearted interaction that goes on when I am out in the world interviewing bands, meeting weirdos, having fun with my friends (none of whom work in the same industry as me), etc. The only way I know how to make friends is to be 100% myself and open up to them completely, and if they don’t get freaked out and respond in kind, we are friends forever.

    But when it comes to the kind of Machiavellian maneuvering that goes into “meeting people with the purpose of obtaining work” I freeze up completely. Something about it feels very disingenuous to me. I cannot really open my heart to these people, because I’m not going in with pure intentions, and because then I would feel exposed. I try to keep my work life separate from my personal life. It’s ironic, because I don’t SEEM like I have any secrets. I’m not sophisticated enough to have these strange kinds of half-friends. I cannot compartmentalize friends like that. I can count on one hand the number of friends I have who work in my field, and then I’m hesitant to sully our friendship’s purity by asking them for favors. Especially when I’m almost never in a position to do them favors in return. I do not want to go out drinking or doing social things with people if I’m going to feel constantly on guard.

    Why don’t I have friends in my field? Partly because I can’t open up to them and partly because we are just not on the same wavelength. We care about different things. Our idea of “fun” is rather divergent. I don’t think I’m better than them, just different. Some people would take this as evidence of my inner purity and others would call me immature. But basically, I’m looking for practical advice, which is why I came to you.

    • Jennifer Dziura

      You know, fortunately, I think the tit-for-tat, quid-pro-quo style of networking is dying, for the simple reason that it is now very difficult to keep business and personal separate. You meet someone in a business context and you get a Facebook friend request. Someone wants to ask you if you can get their kid an internship, so they Google you and find out all the stuff you like. Networking, like dating, is becoming mushier and more casual and it all kind of blends together, into “people you’ve met.” I don’t think “Machiavellian maneuvering” is very in, anymore.

      So, your problem is that you’re very, very genuine and cannot be otherwise?

      You can work with that. I think there are some relationships where it’s understood that you’re more allies than friends. I have had “friends” I wouldn’t ever expect to help me (or be interested in knowing me) when I’m down, so maybe I’d be less inclined to do the same for them, but sometimes it’s great to know a cutthroat narcissist — they’re often very successful. That’s not a real friend, of course. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a gleeful hour drinking scotch with that person and plotting your twin empires. You have real friends for the other stuff. You don’t have to lie or pretend about relationships that are really alliances.

      Next time you meet someone it would be good to know, but you just don’t have chemistry with, maybe try something like, “You’re such an interesting person to know *on this topic.* Mind if we keep in touch about this? Your insights are fascinating.”

      That’s not pretending friendship. “Can we keep in touch about this topic?” makes it pretty clear that you are proposing a casual, low-commitment, (hopefully) mutually beneficial relationship.

      A lot of those kinds of relationships are best conducted online — “here’s an article you might like, I’d like to e-introduce you to so-and-so,” etc. In person, maybe you don’t have much to talk about. You don’t necessarily need to drink together.

      Instead of thinking about business alliances as about power or money, maybe it would help to frame them as intellectual relationships. Hence the “Here’s an article I thought you would find interesting….” There’s nothing disingenuous about a purely intellectual relationship.

      One more thought — a lot of these people in your field that you can’t open up to, that aren’t interested in the same things? I’m sure some of them are just pretending. They come home from work, change their clothes, breathe a sigh of relief, and can finally be themselves. You might be surprised.

    • Jennifer Dziura

      I also just want to add that I made that graphic, with an actual chalkboard and Post-Its.

    • Taylor

      “But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a gleeful hour drinking scotch with that person and plotting your twin empires.”

      One of the most delightful sentences I’ve read in a long time. I have acquaintances like this and I love them for it.

    • K

      Wow. I could’ve written that, word-for-word, myself. (Incidentally, I’ve also been known to jokingly refer to myself as “tits mcgee,” adding another layer of awesome to the comment.) Anyway, *thank you* for sharing. I’m a bit blown away that someone could articulate so precisely the way I think and feel. And Jen, thanks for the thoughtful response. I’m constantly impressed with your work; you are one of the few internet columnists who I return to again and again.

  • Megan

    This reminds me of of a few months ago when I got a facebook message from a fellow who went to college with my father who wanted me to give some advice to his son about working in the movie industry ‘because I had connections,’ which would be my former college roommate who worked in editing in LA for a few months. I sat on it for a bit trying to figure out how to introduce my friend to my father’s old friend’s son so he could send her a bad email of the ‘tell me everything you know’ type. In the end, I never replied because there was no way not to make it awkward all around and I like my friend too much for that.

  • http://www.sunbeltryders.com/ Toasty

    Very good article, and I’m not just an introvert trying to network :)

  • Hector Rosales

    Networking is always a mutual relationship and it’s about finding common ground. Usually people want something out of the other person right away. The right thing to do (in my opinion) is build relationships with people from various industries and eventually be able to utilize those relationships. If you’re having a hard time keeping track of everyone, you can use SociaLink App (www.SociaLinkApp.com) to connect with individuals via Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and Tumblr. It allows you to send friend requests and follows instantly to the person you just met. Let me know if you have any questions! I’d love to help: http://www.linkedin.com/pub/hector-rosales-jr/48/240/6b7

  • Kelsey

    I highly recommend the book “Quiet” by Susan Cain. Great perspective on introverts. I’ve found that even at large networking events, connecting to just a few people on a deeper level is more successful than meeting everyone, and it works great for me. People love to talk about themselves and just asking a few questions can really make a great connection. Ask people about the books they are reading, or join/start a book club!