Think networking is b*llshit?

That’s because you’re confusing an opportunity to help others with an exercise in relentless self-promotion.

Hi, my name is Oleg and I’m a Flylancer because I believe that by changing the way we think about ‘networking’ we can start to enjoy it for what it is: a good, honest and interesting way to meet new people and an opportunity to help others.

Oleg getting his network on at a Flylancer networking meetup.

Talking to strangers, meeting new people, making contacts, or even just making friends — to some, these things seem terrifying. For many networking is even considered a ‘dirty’ act. But it doesn’t have to be that way…

Networking can be the setting for an introduction that might change your life, but equally it can be a chance to make a new friend. All we need to do is change our perception of networking from something inherently ‘selfish’ to what it’s really about which is having an opportunity to help others and be helped by others. Not self-promotion, but well-intentioned, altruistic fun.

Something is wrong in the land of networking

I am often surprised to see how many people still feel uneasy when brought into a room full of interesting people. Where I feel excitement at the prospect of so many compelling conversations, in others, questions and self-doubts arise: Is my small talk too boring for other people? Would discussing my latest projects sound egocentric? How does anyone network without appearing self-promotional?

All these thoughts cross the minds of many, and sadly prevent them from enjoying networking the way they could.

Something must be wrong and misunderstood in the land of networking. While there is a clear conception that networking is important, a surprisingly high number of people seem to take offence at the concept.

Googling ‘networking is’ will suggest ‘not working’ and ‘bullshit’ as the first two options ahead of ‘important’. A quick word association game amongst friends throws up preconceptions like: ‘necessary evil’, ‘unfair’ and ‘awkward’. The University of Toronto has even published a study titled “How Networking Can Make Us Feel Dirty”. The title says it all, and yet, how is it that something so clearly useful and rewarding can at the same time be held in so much disregard by so many?

Barcelona Flylancers hugging each other at a at networking meetup. Flylancer encourages ‘positive networking’ between professionals across the globe.

So is networking really bullshit?

As a fairly extroverted character, I am very lucky to naturally enjoy connecting with people. Thanks to that, I have had the fortune to meet and talk with some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met at ‘networking’ events. But my secret is simple: I enjoy it. I simply enjoy meeting people.

That’s because whenever I am out there meeting new people, I am not there to find new ‘business contacts’, my next career opportunity or whatever else that might help me advance my career. I’m not there to self-promote, or to ‘bullshit’ others.

When I am out, my first goal is to enjoy myself and to meet interesting new people. My second is to think of ways to be helpful to them. I then decide whether to stay in touch with them because I want to, not because I need to. Good things tend to follow.

I rarely attend events with an explicit goal in mind, because something good can come out of any connection, no matter how unlikely it may seem.

It has worked very well for me and this was originally going to be the focus of this blog post until I came across an article by Jeff Archibald of Paper Leaf. Jeff does an excellent job of explaining exactly what my thinking is as well: Why Networking Doesn’t Work (and What You Should Do Instead). In short, Jeff hates networking and his solution for it is simple: stop treating networking as a selfish exercise. Look for ways to make yourself helpful to others — if you meet someone, think of the best way you can help the new person.

Networking and connecting with others as an act isn’t ‘b*llshit’, however the self-serving attitude that has come to be commonplace at most networking events most certainly is.

“Think about how you can help that new person” Flylancers at a Barcelona Meetup.

Does networking feel awkward to you?

Not everyone is an extrovert. Many hate standing in the spotlight and if you feel that way you’re not the only one.

As someone who finds it easier, I have a few simple suggestions that might help:

  1. Try changing the way you look at networking: If you feel awkward talking to others for the sake of your own benefit, work on changing your frame of mind. Don’t think about how you might benefit from a connection, but instead think about how you might be able to help or benefit them. Look for opportunities to help others and wait for the reciprocal magic. It will come.
  2. Practice reaching out to others: Yes, striking up that initial conversation with strangers can be daunting. It’s even daunting for well seasoned extroverts. But finding the confidence to talk is often a matter of practice (here are two great book recommendations on the topic: “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie and “Never Eat Alone” by Keith Ferrazzi). Try looking at it this way, you’ll never know how you could have helped a person, or how they may have been able to help you if you never exchange words.
  3. Keep in mind that intimate connections are far more rewarding than people credit: Contrary to popular belief networking isn’t all about being the centre of attention. Small, intimate conversations take place in large meetups and connecting with a few people on a sincere level, is far more valuable and rewarding than connecting with a great many on a superficial one.

Try not to be afraid, because what really do you have to lose by striking up a conversation? Try, just for one moment to imagine ‘the very worst’ that might happen if you speak to that stranger — Not that bad right?

In a nutshell

Too many people still think of networking as some form of sleazy back-room, awkward environment or elite mingling opportunity rather than what it really is — the chance to meet interesting people and to hear from them about what they do in their lives; and ultimately an opportunity to learn from them.

The next time you feel ‘dirty’ after attending a networking session or complain about it as a necessary evil, you are probably not approaching it with enough of a smile and a willingness to reach out and help others. Embrace it for what it is. Good, honest, well-intentioned fun, and it will give back.

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About the Author:

Oleg is the community host in London for Flylancer, a global community for location independent professionals to meet, share and connect with one another, online, offline and across the globe.

He hosts regular networking meetups in London dedicated to fostering meaningful connections between members of the community and focused on helping others (naturally). To join him for his next event, apply to join the community here.

Not based in London? Join the Flylancer community in Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Berlin, San Francisco, Ubud, Chaing Mai or Melbourne instead.