When I stopped working for my old company and stumbled into the freelance world, there was one thing that I dreaded. Like, as in, hands-sweaty-no-don’t-talk-to-me-about-it-I’m-pretending-not-to-be-here-dreaded. NETWORKING.
Networking. For me, this is like … I don’t know, like if you put a snowman on the beach or something. I really really really don’t feel comfortable walking up to people that I don’t know, introducing myself and pitching them something. That already started when I was at university where we had career fairs with a lot of cool companies and big events with a lot of cool speakers and you were supposed to just go up to them and introduce yourself and ask for an internship or a contact or a phone number. Wait, what??? Like - I should go and talk to these people and then make them like me and want to work with me? WAIT WHAT? No thank you. I’d rather sit and watch and then go home and feel bad about myself and eat a glass of Nutella. (Yes, that happened. Don’t judge me.)
The amazing absolutely mind-blowing thing for me? There were actually people who did that. Who walked up to these super famous speakers and introduced themselves and got the phone number AND the internship. AND they enjoyed it. Like, “of course I’m going to talk to that person, no big deal!”. And me watching from the side lines, spoon in hand.
I comforted myself with “no, it’s okay, you’ll get your internship and your great job anyways” - and I did. I got great internships, I got an amazing job straight out of university, and I didn’t have to network anymore!! Hallelujah.
Fast forward five years and I’m sitting at home, just coming out of a crazy business-relationship-breakup and had just decided to go freelance. My partner and me, innocently at home on the sofa watching Fargo and he mentions networking. Like - casually. In the middle of “Do we want to order in or cook” and “Let’s go for brunch tomorrow” - “You know, you need to build your network now.”
Me - give me that Nutella glass. “David, I can’t do this. I can’t network. I just can’t. I hate it. I’m not good at it. People are going to laugh at me. I’m going to embarrass myself. And — ” (For the record, David, my partner, is one of these people who has absolutely no problem with walking up to strangers and talking to them. I think he secretly enjoys it.) He stopped me. And (and this is how you know you caught a good one) he told me the cold hard truth: “You know - that doesn’t matter anymore now. Because you HAVE to if you want to do this.”
Me - defeated. And the worst part? I knew he was right.
So I sat down and started thinking about why I hated networking so much. And pretty soon I realized that it wasn’t actually the talking to people part, it was the “I’m just interested in you because you have something to offer that I want part” that I always associated with networking. (Because, let’s face it, this is how 95% of all career fairs and startup meetups go.)
But! I also realized that the few times that I had great, inspiring conversations during these networking events I had really enjoyed it. Like during my monthly Geekettes meetups. When I thought some more, I realized that I was actually doing “networking” there. I was talking to people, I was making connections, but it didn’t feel like it! Why? Because these were people that were genuinely interested in what other people were doing. Because these were people who were honest and open and shared their stories without thinking what they could get out of it. Because I had FUN talking to them and getting to know them better.
And then I realized something else. This whole forced networking? I didn’t have to do it. I didn’t have to play by the rules that I always thought were there. I could do it my way. And my way is coffee. Or lunch. Or dinner. Just with you and me. Just getting to know each other, feel each other out, talking about books and vacation and our professional life and, maybe, if we’re clicking, about our friends and how happy we are and what we wish for in life.
Those are the connections I want to make. If there’s business in them, great. If not, also great, because I just spend an hour or two having a really, really interesting and inspiring conversation. So I started to go for coffee with people that I thought were interesting or that reached out to me. The first couple of times I was really, really nervous. And every time I got really, really nervous, I remembered my mom. My mom is an amazing woman, who once said to me “You know, people want to make friends. Just remember that.” It’s true.
After a couple of coffees and lunches and dinners it got easier. And today I woke up and looked at my calendar and saw that I have a lunch with an ex-colleague whom I haven’t seen in two years, a coffee with a woman I met once, a Skype call with someone I never met in person, a phone call with someone who I’ve met just a couple of times, and a dinner with 6 women out of whom I know only one. Wayyyyy out of my comfort zone, usually. And I was looking forward to it. I was WHAT? I WAS WHAT???
I was looking forward to getting to know these people better. To hearing their stories. To figuring out if there was a way I could help them. To having good conversations.
So, if you’re like me and you’d rather spend your night with Netflix and Nutella and a spoon than going to these big networking events, take a good look at why you don’t want to go. What is it that makes you cringe just thinking about it? Step 2: Try to remember the few times that you actually enjoyed yourself during these events. Figure out why. And then step 3: Figure out a way to replicate that in a different setting. Something low key, most likely. Do that a couple of times, and see how you feel.
Reframe “networking” for you. Make it about honest conversations, about sharing stories, about just getting to know people. Remember my mom - people want to make friends. And making friends, honestly, is fun.