Some friends of mine have recently remarked how much I seem to enjoy and invest in connecting people. I probably write out 3–4 texts/messages/emails a day connecting friends, professional acquaintances, or sending out short self-introductions to folks that I’m interested in meeting. Between meeting up with folks for coffee, jumping on calls, and writing emails/LinkedIn notes, I’ve probably spent the equivalent of 75 full days (that’s 7 hours/week over the past 5 years) building new relationships.
There’s sometimes an inauthentic connotation with networking, but when thoughtfully and intentionally done… I’ve found the act of creating connections to be a joyful and life-giving interaction. Personally, I know that building and maintaining relationships will be a lifelong skill and a permanent part of my personal and professional lives. As I’m starting off in the relative early end of my career, I want to take some time to reflect on some lessons that I’ve learned along the way that might be useful to others.
How Connections Saved my Family in WWII
My grandpa was a teenager when the Japanese Army occupied Hong Kong during World War II. He remembers watching Japanese soldiers marching down the street through slits in the iron-mesh gates that locked up the hardware shop his father owned. His aunt at the time was well-connected in Hong Kong and had arranged for the safe passage of my grandfather’s entire family to their ancestral village of Xinhui and paid off bribes to keep our family’s property and storefront from being looted or confiscated.
My grandpa retells the story with a sense of wonder — how efficiently they were all whisked away and how life after the 3-year occupation resumed without the brutal and inhumane treatment that many in the city suffered. He maintains that the contacts his aunt had were not completely on the right side of the law but were crucial in maintaining the well-being, safety, and financial health of the family.
Though I don’t advocate for creating or maintaining relationships that go against your morale worldview, I do think there’s great power that a connection can derive from the appropriate situational context. The lesson that I took away from my grandpa’s anecdote is how the scope a set of connections can have on the entire trajectory of one’s life (or in my family’s case, an entire Leung generation!)
Warm Intros to Wet Labs
Probably one of the most formative experiences in networking happened during my junior year of high school. We had entire class periods devoted to the task of finding our own research opportunity for the upcoming summer, and I remember the many hours I spent crafting emails to maybe 100+ biomedical research labs (2 painstakingly customized sentences of what I found interesting about their research and 2 template paragraphs of why I was a good fit as an aspiring researcher and academic)
As you can imagine, response rates were pretty low and my desperation level began to rise as my friends lined up internships and the summer neared. I remember taking a step back one day and telling myself that there had to be an easier way to get in touch with opportunities in the research setting. I reached out to some older classmates who had went through the process themselves a year prior and began surveying their experiences and asking for advice in connecting with their mentors in the past.
I ultimately secured my one and only internship opportunity through the kind introduction of a classmate who raved about her mentor and internship the summer before. For me, this was a lesson in leveraging existing relationships to find new ones. I had such a wonderful experience that summer, and will always look back on those formative lessons as a scientist and “working” intern.
It also inspired me to pay the act forward as well: a younger classmate emailed me a year later to request a connection to the same research mentor — an ask, of course, which I happily obliged :)
Postures of Interest and Helpfulness
The majority of connections I have to this date have been rooted in the humble posture of learning. Finding avenues and opportunities to continue a regular cadence of learning from others becomes even more important after transitioning from student to young professional.
There are two major lessons I’ve learned so far that might be helpful to others:
- Articulating a thoughtful and genuine sense of interest. This may seem obvious but hard to contextualize how and in what manner to act on. In asking for one’s expertise on a topic, I’ve found it helpful to share something concrete that folks can respond to (e.g. a blog post on a mutual topic of interest or your own reactions to an interesting event/article). On the other hand, an ask to learn from another’s journey shows much more color if you’re able to articulate a common tension or a shared experience. I’m clearly biased towards long-form writing as a medium to communicate intentionality but this clarity of focus and authenticity can come through even in short emails, verbal asks, and in the 300 characters that LinkedIn gives you to personalize your connection request.
- Always offering to extend to help. Folks tend to be way more receptive when you lead or end with a thoughtful note about something that they may find interesting. In my experience, this doesn’t have to come from a place of “expertise” or some concrete experience you’ve had. Sharing an article, press release, or a link to an interesting event/organization can go a long way in expressing gratitude through a willingness to return the favor. In any emails or any calls I’m fortunate enough to jump on, I try to communicate an open invitation to be helpful in return: over time, these requests have actually begun to yield some real fruit through sharing unexpected learnings, job opportunities, and even a prospective venture.
Some Closing Thoughts
The joy I find in connecting folks with each other is one reason I find the vocation of product management so exciting: we’re tasked with rallying our teammates through a shared empathy of a particular problem and coordinating efforts to address it in a meaningful way.
Long before I learned about this current career trajectory, I found myself connecting people through common interests: leading cross-functional initiatives like SHIFT, building community as a Residential staff member, starting clubs as way back as high school, leading worship teams in InterVarsity, and even coordinating social activities for friends.
In the words of a good friend and homie, Aditya:
The world is just a better place when the right people are connected, and you can unlock so much potential in a company, organization, or a friend group when someone makes good plans and rallies people to carry them through.
After reflecting on how I’ve invested in the creation of relationships, the hope is that I begin to approach the (more valuable) investment of sustaining meaningful relationships with an even higher degree of thoughtfulness and intentionality. I challenge my peers and friends, (especially those balancing new/old relationships early in a career) to consider what a meaningful investment looks like in the context of the connections you’ve made and hope to make over time.
Thanks for giving this a read! As always, would love to hear your thoughts in reaching out to interesting folks, creating connections with others, and your thoughts on maintaining + sustaining a relationship beyond that initial coffee/call.
As I mention above, let me know if I can be helpful to you in any way: I’m always happy to meet with folks interested in product, healthcare , technology, or writing. Feel free to reach out to me here or on Twitter.