We’ve all heard the pro-networking adages:
“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”
“You scratch their back, and they scratch yours.”
“It helps to have friends in high places.”
Now all of the above are true—I’m not here to question that. What I find a bit disturbing, though, is the degree to which this last adage has narrowed our concept of who is worth our time.
We are trained in school, by our parents, by our superiors, and by the media to always be on the lookout for strategic contacts and make sure to latch on when we find them. Who knows? Maybe the person sitting across from you can pull the strings to get you that job. Or that promotion. Or that publishing contract. Or that audition. Or… or…
You get the idea.
But what I find sad about this mindset is that it often leads us to either make compromises that we shouldn’t make or miss out on something entirely:
This is beyond peer pressure—it’s superior pressure. It’s when we find ourselves pretending to be something we’re not in order to make a good impression. It’s when we bend our moral code a little to satisfy someone else’s expectations. We can catch ourselves doing this sooner than we may think, if we believe people “in power” hold all the cards.
In short, if we accept the idea that gatekeepers hold the key to all of our success, we may end up chasing our tails or selling out on who we are. Not to mention, we will miss out other connections that may actually prove more meaningful.
While it’s great when you can get in front of decision makers, most people we meet are not “the decision makers.” Does this mean we should simply ignore them or limit our circle to individuals who can put us in front of decision makers?
I don’t think so. In fact, I think there is a danger in trying to quantify the amount of “value” any given connection can give us, because that means we are reducing other humans to economic terms of profit and loss. If we find ourselves asking, “Is this person worth getting to know?” we are in dangerous waters. How can we possibly know that until we know the person? And what’s more, who are we to measure the value of a new acquaintance by what they can do for us? If that’s the question we are asking, we’re bound to wind up with a bunch of parasitic relationships—symbiotic at best. And if mutual dependence is the main motivator, then as soon as one person no longer needs the other, the bridge will probably dissolve.
This is not to say networking is inherently selfish—it’s not the activity that’s selfish, it’s the mindset behind it.
If we are only looking for friends in high places, we will probably not have very many friends, and even fewer loyal ones.
Which is why I would encourage all of us writers, artists, and career folks to make friends in all places, not just the high ones. Because at the end of the day, real friendships and meaningful connections have very little to do with power and rank disparity and everything to do with what two people share in common.
What has been your experience with networking?
What kinds of pressures have you faced in the process?
How do you go about building meaningful connections that are also strategic?