Networking: Why we're all awkward, and how we can fix this


It was Mr. McGee who first told me what it meant to “network.” The McGees are family friends of ours, and when we first drove to Florida to visit them, I was fourteen. It was my first time inside a gated community. Mrs. McGee opened the front door with her pretty white smile. I stepped inside, noticing how cool the air was. At our house in upstate New York, the summer temperature settled somewhere between au naturel and an oven, just before dinner is ready. But here—here there were glass chandeliers, high ceilings, a pool, medium rare steak and a cabinet displaying very old whiskey.

And then there was Mr. McGee. We’ve all met some version of Mr. McGee, the corporate executive who built his career from scratch, and who, you suspect, could quit his job and do it all over again. He’s so good at telling stories that you sometimes wonder if he practices in front of a mirror. But once you hear his easy, rumbling laugh, you know his persona is completely authentic. When he tells you that networking was the key to landing his current position, you’re not surprised. By the end of the night, you promise to create your own LinkedIn account.

During your first year at King’s, you will almost certainly make a similar promise. Have a dream job? Start building your network. The only way to be more than a tiny dot on the massive scatter plot that is New York is to start connecting those dots—this is conventional wisdom.

What does “networking” entail, exactly? The Merriam-Webster definition is as good as any: “cultivation of productive relationships for employment or business.” This could mean asking a teacher about a TA opening. It could mean chatting up an executive at your internship. Networking requires the initiative to open communication with people who are more important than you.

Early on in Professor Brian Brenberg’s Business Communications class, students must write a 30-second elevator pitch, and deliver it successfully—maintaining a relaxed demeanor, appearing passionate and making a strong impression—to each of their classmates.

I took this class, so I know from first-hand experience that it makes students sweat through their dress shirts in big, drippy pit stains, because—as I’m sure you know—networking is hard. Knowing you’ve got 30 seconds to make a good impression brings out insecurities (and their corresponding pit stains). It’s not pretty.

I’m sure you’ve also wondered, while eating dinner with a 45-year old businessmen like Mr. McGee (and here I could just as easily insert “Professor Brenberg”), How can I do that? I’ve wondered that, anyway.

It’s so frustrating that neither confidence nor eloquence—the two essential ingredients to networking—can be taught in a simple class, like barista orientation. Networking is generally a demoralizing experience for college students.

Here’s another alarming thought: now that we all know the value of networking, when a smiling face introduces itself to you over hors d'oeuvres, doesn’t its sincerity merit immediate suspicion?

Cliff Mason, author of the CNBC blog Millennial Money, wrote on this constant suspicion:

“No, you are not making a good impression on anyone when you pass out your business card with your email address and phone number to virtually everyone you meet. In fact, your glad-handing behavior makes you look like a jerk at best and a loser at worst. But now virtually everyone, and especially everyone under 30, is convinced that the key to a successful career is to behave like a totally transparent nitwit.” So which is it? Is networking professionally necessary, or is it debasing?

Dale Carnegie once said that “you can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” In other words, if you actually want to create a bond with the people you meet and socialize with, e.g. network with, everything else will just flow.

Megan McArdle, writing for The Atlantic, said something awfully similar:

"A good networker is someone who starts out on the presumption that you must be interesting, and looks for the things that make you so.” This is actually pretty easy. It will feel easy, too--loose, genuine and comfortable--all the trappings of confidence, as it happens.

It’s so easy to automatically discard simple solutions, to assume that the answers are hidden in that evening class we should be taking, or that philosophy we haven’t yet read. It takes courage to not overthink things. But if anyone can do it, we students of The King's College--the champions of logic and Ockham's razor--can.

All of this to say, I suspect there’s a back way out of the anxieties and difficulties of networking. A simple solution.

Thinking back to the dinners at the McGee’s, I remember the overriding sense of comfort and happiness that always accompanies good friends. I think there was more artlessness than art to the social and professional “gifts” Mr. McGee had. He was just happy to see you. It was that simple. That, I think, is good networking: loving people.