Lessons in Personal Networking

Lessons in Personal Networking

I remember being a shy child, confused by how people expected me to follow their mysterious rules, unhappy at being told my questions were dumb. When I entered college in 1986 as a computer engineering major, I lived an introverted and awkward existence. I didn’t date, go to parties, or even have any hobbies than making graphics on my computer and running a local bulletin board. It’s twenty years later, and I feel I’ve finally broken free of my introverted tendencies. How do I know? I had a good time attending a business networking event, and I actually initiating conversations. Bizarre!

How did this surprising-but-slow-moving transformation take place? I think it had everything to do with discovering who I am, and then having the guts to believe that I was right.

1. Be Comfortable by Knowing Yourself First.

It’s hard to talk naturally and authentically (very important) if you’re feeling uncomfortable. In fact, when people give you advice to “be yourself”, they’re really telling you to be comfortable and relaxed the way they know you in person. The tricky part that when you’re out of your element, you still need to know who you are by defining it for yourself. A lot of the time, we let the social context define us. And when you feel you are playing a role that “just isn’t you”, you either need to practice that role so you own it, or find another one that works better for you. Both approaches requires that you set the rules.

So why don’t we set the rules ourselves? My guess is that it’s our tendency to let other people’s expectations override them. Most social contexts carry certain expectations of normative behavior; if you went to a “cliquey” school, you know what I mean. The strength of the individuals is a function of the strength of the group, which is often anchored by a strong leader surrounded by supporters. Outside of the group, individuals revert to their normal selves. Another mechanism at play is creating scary bogeymen out of what we think the expectations are of “someone like me” fitting in an accomplished (so we think) group of people.

I’ve learned to clarify myself in terms that make sense to those other groups of people, and therefore I’ve created my own role as designer, programmer, or whatever. This is primarily an exercise in marketing for optimum audience and opportunity, which is a good place to start. However, sticking to this approach alone is an example of zero sum thinking; you’ll get back whatever percentage of exposure you’ve gleaned from splitting that very very large pie of opportunity.

Once I defined these marketable terms, I found that the next step was to live them. Just thinking of myself as a service provider has never sat well with me, and it’s because I’ve always wanted to make tangible product that represented me. Blogging was the first time I did this, and it is very satisfying. Taking the steps to create my own product has crystallized my actions further: this is what I want to do and I love talking about it. It’s really me. This makes all the difference in my comfort level, and unlike a social context I can take it with me wherever I go.

2. Forget About Pleasing Everyone.

I mentioned that defining those broad market-recognized terms was good in helping establish a starting point for self-definition. A lot of small companies don’t go farther than this, content with being identified in a recognized “marketplace” where they can play games with audience exposure and compete on price, service, quality, and location. There’s generally a lot of business, and the veterans know that with consistent hard work, they’re practically guaranteed a certain percentage of the market.

The next stage of thinking, as far as I’m concerned, is not to optimize for broad market reach. It’s to create a very small market, based on very unique qualities that don’t appeal to everyone. Make them appeal to the people that you like to work with, and recognize that if you can fall broadly into the price point of the “generic” markets, you will be the natural choice. I suppose that “specialization” would be what this is called, but think beyond the names of industries. Think about what YOU WANT people respond to on a visceral level, and then clarify THAT so it can be communicated with strength, vigor, and unshakable belief.

The practical benefit of this: I didn’t worry about connecting with everyone at the networking event. I looked for people that had interesting expressions on their faces or worked for interesting-sounding companies. And then, I let my natural desire to collect stories spill out as enthusiasm, because that’s what I want. I used to be afraid to show any enthusiasm, because technical crowds tend to not value this very much. This is an example letting a social context define who you are. Now, I see the ability to express enthusiasm through my daily interactions as critical in maintaining a ready supply of enthusiasm coming back to me.

To summarize three critical takeaways:

  • Having the courage to own your solitude gives you the breathing room to find the people you really want to talk to, based on your values. Don’t let the social context dictate your desires, unless it actually is prudent.

  • To make a connection, you need to communicate what you’d like to receive in return. For me, I think of myself as the Mayor: I’m happy doing what I’m doing where I design and blog, and talking about that to interested people. Likewise, I like to hear about what they’re doing in their own “towns”.

  • For anything to happen, you do need to get out of the house and talk to people about what you’re doing. Talk to anyone…the more the better. Some people won’t have the patience or interest, but don’t take that personally…they’re not the people for you to talk to about those topics. I’ve experienced maybe a 1 in 20 hit rate for people that I really feel an affinity for on some level. If you’re a normal person with normal hobbies and television watching habits, your chances are quite probably better because you have more to talk about.

Trials and Tribulations

One surprising blessing: Speed Dating. I’ve had mixed success: the first time out, I got about a 50% response rate, which dropped to 10% response rate for the second time. The funny thing is that the second time out, I actually had a better time, hanging out with new friends at the bar and chatting naturally and laughing. Looking at the low response rate, I think I may have overdone the friendly side of things and came off as “not serious about starting a relationship” guy. I keep forgetting people were there to find that kind of connection. Plus, sometimes it seems that women around here think dating an Asian guy is like buying an off-brand car like a Renault or a Mitsubishi, but I could just be imagining this. But I digress! The point is that compared to speed dating, business networking isn’t that hard at all. Secondly, I’ve been trading technical services for coaching with my friend Senia. She specializes in positive psychology, action, and entrepreneurship, and is highly adept at listening to people and asking the right questions. At first I wasn’t sure if I would even benefit from coaching because I am pretty good at self-analysis, but she’s helped me clarify a lot of my own thinking just by asking intelligent questions and proposing quirky-yet-practical methods of getting to action. I might have eventually gotten to here by myself, but I’m sure it would have taken a lot longer to dig myself out of my rut, and not been as fun. Thirdly, I’ve read a couple more books by Paulo Coelho, author of The Alchemist. I loved the Alchemist (recommended by Senia, in fact, years ago), but hadn’t bothered to explore his other books. A new friend of mine, met at one of the speed dating events, told me that The Alchemist is part of a loose trilogy of books: The Pilgrimage and The Fifth Mountain also deal with themes about purpose, mission, and achieving one’s dream and purpose in life. They were the right books at the right time, helping me define and then commit to a path. With this established, my comfort level with myself has risen greatly, and this in turn puts more opportunities within my grasp.

Wrapping Up

I keep coming back to the original premise behind my first Printable CEO form, the Concrete Goals Tracker: There are two main ways to accomplish your goals:
  • Make things that other people can see, so they can react intuitively.

  • Make a real connection with people, so they connect with you.


p>The second one is really about creating energy and being exposed to opportunities you wouldn’t have found by yourself; these are the best qualities of social networking as far as I’m concerned. Creating more opportunities to meet people is one of the best things you can do, period.


  1. Betsy 17 years ago

    Great article about personal networking!  No matter what you’re doing or who you are, life really is all about integrity and authenticity.  And (IMO) all about becoming whole.

    Thanks for reminding us – in this world, it’s all too easy to forget.

  2. magpie (larah) 17 years ago

    The Alchemist, huh?  Seems that everyone has a right book at the right time story. Mine was Coyote Blue by Christopher Moore.

    Anyone else care to share? I’m starting a collection of titles and one line lessons learned over at my blog: shiny.

  3. Stephen 17 years ago

    Three big books in my life:

    <li>Starship Toopers – led to the rest of Heinlein and the other classic sci-fi greats whose dream was that one day the smart people would be in charge, instead of the rich people. We can keep dreaming…</li>
    <li>The Shadow of the Wind – Made me get a job at a bookstore.</li>
    <li>The Cluetrain Manifesto – by far the best business book of the last fifteen years. Buy it. Read it. Or get creamed by the guys who did.</li>

    Good luck all, and good reading!

  4. Britt 17 years ago

    For some reason, I always find it easier to tell stories about other people than stories about myself—-not a good thing when you’re trying to network. It almost feels like bragging when I “talk about me.” However, I think you’ve nailed it with the idea of not trying to please everyone. It’s easier to be less self-conscious if you aren’t focused on the entire room. And it helps once you can engage in that one-on-one conversation. True interaction tends to stamp down the butterflies. As always, excellent post.

  5. Filipe 17 years ago

    Since we’re talking about how leisure can teach us a lot of things and books from Paulo Coelho I’d like to recommend a movie:

    I’ve learnt somethings on it and actually and motivated me to do “The Pilgrimage” which I’ve read some years ago and messed my mind in a good way by then. Maybe I’ll do the Portuguese Path, for starters :D. It’s on my @someday/maybe list :)

  6. Jason Alba 17 years ago

    this is a great (and long) post about networking – thanks for sharing.  I remember my first networking experiences with job seekers (ugh) last year, all I wanted to do was get out of the room!  But I read a book on networking and that totally changed my perspective.  You touch on a lot of ideas from that book in this post – now I’m a relationship junkie and network whenever I can :) – I bet your experience will change the way you approach these meetings from now one.

    Jason Alba
    CEO – JibberJobber.com

  7. kelley muir 17 years ago

    Speaking of networking- are you going to ignite boston thursday night?
    Ian and I will be there.

  8. Cameron 17 years ago

    I don’t think dating David Seah would be like buying an off brand car (what’s wrong with Renaults anyway).

    I think he’s hip, he’s cute and would be amazing to hang out with.  Anyone out there interested in a date with him?

  9. Matthew Cornell 17 years ago

    I’m with you on the networking, David. It’s a rich world, but something we geeks often don’t learn about, to (I believe) our significant detriment.


    FYI these posts might be of interest:

    A geek “gets” networking: The strange magic of connecting with others

    A simple and useful networking gift that anyone can give for free
    My Business Networking Advice article is up, FYI

    The most important networking question

    Networking surprises – Some recent unexpected (but successful) outcomes

  10. Dave Seah 17 years ago

    Hey Matt!

    Very cool, thanks for your links! If you ever throw a Geek Networking Summit, I’ll show up :-)