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.

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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.