On networking

31 October 2020
31 Oct 2020
West Lafayette, IN
7 mins

In the distracting bustle of professional life and career advice, I think we’ve lost track of why we call networking “networking”.

A network is a weave. A grid. A fabric. The parts are interwoven tightly together to produce a whole strengthened by each cross-stitch and knot. When we talk about networking, I think we often miss the forest for the tress – the network for the threads, if you will. Networking isn’t about the individual connections themselves, but about what you get when they are woven together.

Your cognitive tribe

At its best, I think a great network of people around you in life can be an extension of your brain and your senses into the world, a way for you to think about and experience things you otherwise wouldn’t have. There are the boring usual examples: hearing about a job opportunity through the grapevines, or picking up some insider news on what teams or people in the network are working on. But I also reach for people around me to help clarify my thoughts for a blog post, to help brainstorm ideas, to help out a friend stuck in a hard situation, to find travel tips for a new destination without rifling through pages of search results. And when they ask, I’ll help just the same.

Strong networks of people don’t just connect when there’s a problem to solve. There are ideas and tips and advice and updates constantly flowing throughout like neurons in your brain, and when something interesting happens, the right neurons fire to make sure the right people in the group know about it. But for this to work, a network can’t be about individual connections made. I think a better way to think about a network of people is as a cognitive tribe. Networking is weaving yourself into a part of a larger network, neurons firing and stories flowing, so that when something interesting happens to pull on a thread in the fabric, the rest of the network notices.

This is the way I think of networking. There are thousands of communities of interesting people, thousands of overlapping layers of human fabric connected by threads of people weaving in and out, sharing information and opportunity and stories. Networking is intertwining yourself into these weaves. Looking at it this way, it should also be evident that there are no networks better or worse – just the ones more meaningful to you, and the ones less relevant to your life. Contrary to common misconceptions, networking isn’t a climb to the top, but a search for a fit.

In this light, it’s strange that we talk about network as if it’s something we own or create ourselves. We say things like “people in my network” and “growing your network.” But networks aren’t potted plants you seed and grow in your office yourself, they are gardens we can be welcomed into. Networks thread and permeate all of life, and networking is the myriad of things we do to wander into the gardens that help us stumble into the right opportunities and stories and people in life and work.

How do?

I owe a lot of where I am professionally, including much of my past work opportunities, to the networks around me. But outside of work, the same people also help me think through career decisions, join me in my hobbies, and help me flesh out ideas for projects. When I first set out to try to find a network a few years ago, I was mostly grasping blindly in the dark, searching for interesting conversations with people I admired. These days, most interactions I have around my network are organic. Maybe someone’s starting a company, and wants my thoughts on developer tools, or someone’s looking to work at a past workplace of mine, and wants my opinion. Sometimes, there are people just as excited as I about communities or compilers, and we can just jam on ideas for hours.

I think networking is three things, practiced well.

I use the word practice very intentionally here – while I wouldn’t go so far as to say networking is an art form, it’s a skill. The skill goes beyond what you’d expect, like being a good conversationalist, and also includes things like having a clear narrative about what you want to do, and better understanding the kinds of people whose company you enjoy.

  1. Find and talk to people you think are great. Not everyone you meet this way is going to be a hit. Some conversations will be better than you had hoped, and others will derail and get cut short. But this is a place you can improve. One of the big ways I’ve grown myself is in this skill. I think I’m better now at understanding when someone is a person I want to be around, and I’m more confident and comfortable with my judgement as time passes.
  2. Be gracious to the people you surround yourself with. Help them where you can because it’s right, not because it helps you. Be a good friend, coworker, mentor, advocate. I don’t just mean “help” in the sense of “let me introduce you to X” or offering up an expertise of yours, though those can be useful. Help people the way you’d help friends or family. Be a sounding board for ideas and an open ear when they have news. Care about what they’re trying to do with their life. Mental calculus of give-and-take is tiring. Good people help you not because you helped them once, but because you’d do the same for them.
  3. Find a narrative about yourself that resonates with you. Some story about your interests, your goals, your values that you can sharpen and flesh out over time. Make sure everyone knows your story. There’s a reason this tip is to “find” a story rather than to “come up with” one. Don’t make things up. Don’t embellish a narrative or repeat a trope if it’s not actually a reflection of what you want to do with your life. The point of a narrative is not to make you seem impressive. It’s to help everyone who wants to help you remember what you’re doing, and where you want to go. What are you doing now? How did you get there? Is this what you want to be doing in the future? If not, why not?

Most people do 1. Many people do 2. Few people do 3. But building a strong network without a great personal story is like having a nervous system without a brain. Lots of signal, lots of activity, but if the people around you don’t have a clear sense of where you want to go next and what you still need to get there, even the right signals through the network might get lost in the wrinkles and never reach you.

It seems like every other article about networking begins with an apology-excuse about how “networking” isn’t a dirty word. I don’t think it’s worthwhile to debate whether people are using a word correctly, but regardless of debates of semiotics, what I do doesn’t change. I try to surround myself with people I like, try to care about what they do, and raise a hand if I want to help out. I’m not shy about talking about my interests in community or my various side-project escapades, because I know that if they come across something interesting to me, they’ll know to share it with me, just as I’ll do for them.

Networking is a search for the cognitive tribe that wants to go together where you want to go, and build together what you want to build. If you wander into the right ones, help where you can, and share where you want to go, it’ll undoubtedly help you get there easier and faster than going alone.

Much of my thoughts and experiences meeting interesting people and building relationships have been shaped by Keith Ferrazzi’s Never Eat Alone, a book I’ve re-read multiple times. It comes off a little MBA-esque compared to my usual taste in books, but it still comes with a positive recommendation from me, if you’re interested.

Blackbird. Pixar. iPhone.

The job of a writer

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