January 12th, 2012

Never do anything that isn’t a verb

I’m going to be presenting at a careers evening at University of Toronto later this month (it’s not open to the public, I’m afraid, but if you’re a student there and want to attend, message me and I’ll send you the deets). I love talking about work, jobs, and careers (are those three different things or three synonyms–discuss!) and this is a chance for me to be even more opinionated than usual.

I’m warming up with a few blog posts (well, perhaps only 1, the way this month is going) about topics the organizers told me will probably come up. First up, the ever-alarming concept of Networking!

One of my least favourite compliments, the one that *always* seems backhanded and snarky, is “You’re such a good networker.” I usually take it to mean, “You effectively pretend to be nice but you really aren’t,” or somethine else similar and dreadful. Also, I sort of think I never “network”–because it’s not a verb, at least it didn’t used to be back in the good old days of rotary dial phones and yellow taxis. The Oxford Canadian now includes the verb form, but the definition I like best is the first one, “n. A group of interconnected or communicating things, people, or points.” Your personal network is all the people you know, and to network is (sigh) to try to expand that group.

I like getting to know and keeping in touch with a wide range of people. Such statements get a lot of eyerolls, especially in these modern times where knowing lots of people is supposed to get you fun friends, but jobs and power and global domination. I don’t know that I’ve had that much in the way of power and success, but it’s not like I haven’t had wonderful support and encouragement from people I know in the writing community, and it’s not like that hasn’t helped me.

So maybe saying I don’t network is just a dictionary game, and maybe I do know how to do this, at least a little. However, I’ve also noticed that people tend to take the need to “network” as license to be awful–glancing over your co-conversationalist’s shoulder for someone better, hijacking conversations with resume-lists of accomplishments, generally getting people to talk to you and then making them sorry they did.

People who are actually good at this stuff have told me that that’s the wrong way to do it, so for all I know, maybe my way is right even though I have not ended up ruling the universe. So here’s my most basic, at-least-won’t-make-things-worse advice on the networking thing:

Be super nice. Be warm and friendly. Start conversations with people who look lonely. Engage on topics they seem engaged by, ask questions, listen more than you talk, and remember what you’ve heard. Share your gum, give up your seat, pick up something someone else dropped. If you admire something someone did or said, say so; if you don’t, don’t say anything. If you think someone is doing something cool, ask them about it. If someone is looking for help or recruiting volunteers, say yes if you can. Show up to events when you are invited–whether it’s a birthday party, pub-band show, or a corporate soire, you have a better chance of meeting new people if you are there to meet them.

Be honest. Don’t feign interest in things you don’t like, don’t spend time with people you don’t enjoy, don’t pursue endeavours you hate. I totally think this is a kind of honesty. I have a policy about not spending time with anyone I know for a fact I don’t like–it’s a waste of everyone’s time, because the feeling is usually mutual, or it will become so when I “fake nice” someone for too long. The thing is, in order to get factual confirmation that I truly don’t like this person, I need to talk to them for a while. And actually engage and converse, not just nod and wait for them to wind down. And then, I have to do it again on a completely separate occasion, in case one of us was just having an off night the first time. After that, if this person really seems like a negative force, I avoid them, smile politely, offer a greeting or a quick question (how’s that tarantula?) when I have to and keep moving. There is simply no point in befriending people I don’t like–it’s no fun and, anyway, most people can tell (I can!)

This also goes for electronic networking. Sure, try a blog, Facebook, whatever you think is your ideal venue for succssful connections with other humans–but if you find you hate it, don’t continue, even if your boss/publisher/career advisor insists it’s an important part of your “brand.” At an online networking workshop I once attended (yeah, yeah) someone once said, “No one ever made a bestseller on Facebook.” These sites are tools like any others–useful when used properly, otherwise potentially damaging. If you can’t image how alienating a grudgingly written blog is–you probably need to research the endeavour more before you begin.

Work really hard. You can befriend everyone in the world, but if your work isn’t awesome, it doesn’t much matter. Always have something in progress that you love, so that if someone asks you about it you’ll be not only able but eager to talk about it. Be eager to do your best stuff even when there doesn’t seem to be enough money or glory (or any of either) to make it worth your while. The thing about networking is that you’re always doing it, even when you don’t want to be. Everyone *does* know everyone, including that boss that you consistently underperformed for, the volunteer team you quit, and the colleague you were rude to.

A big pitfall for folks entering a new field, especially creative ones, is to take internships or do pro bono work for the “resume credit,” then not do a great job because they’re not being paid. The work is still out there, though, representing you, even if you feel it doesn’t. I think if you can afford to, you should probably stop doing anything you don’t like well enough to do a good job–get out before it ruins your reputation.

Everyone’s not watching…unless you give’em something to watch. A neat thing that’s happened to me once or twice is to be standing around chatting with friends at a party, and have a Very Important Person cruise by and say, “Hey, Rebecca, how’s the new book [or some such] going?” Whomever I’m with is always really impressed with me and my successful networking, but it’s really the VIP who is good at it. The more you’re in the spotlight, I think, the more you learn to pay attention to those around you, to learn how to best work with people so you’ll get their best work, and to keep friendly relationships even with those you don’t work with–in case you ever might.

I realize this is an extra rose-coloured post–I hope it doesn’t come across as sappy. I know there are less ingenuous things you can do to expand your sea of connections, but I don’t really think they’re worth doing or thinking about. Besides if you network my way, even if you don’t advance your career, you still might make some friends.

One Response to “Never do anything that isn’t a verb”

  • Panic says:

    I love this.


  • Leave a Reply

So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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