It's so common for college students to tell me that they feel "weird" when they try to network. There are as many meanings of "weird" as there are people, but frequently when I press them to articulate their reluctance to make connections, "weird" means some melange of the following:
A) anxiety about talking to people they don't know,
B) coming across as pushy, fake, or calculating, and
C) not knowing what to do to make an authentic connection.
I appreciate their reluctance because I see it, in part, as an expression of some basic, laudable values: respect, humility, and authenticity. They aren't comfortable exploiting others' time or expertise for their own gain. They feel gross about acting according to a narrowly-defined self-interest, and don't want to schmooze disingenuously to acquire contacts. A recent letter to the New York Times' Ethicist column illustrates this perspective; the author expresses dismay about nepotism in internship hiring practices and questions the propriety of capitalizing on their father's professional contacts to land a position.
However, I believe students' aversion to networking stems primarily from a misunderstanding. They often believe that meeting people in the context of shared professional interests and personal goals is selfish. This question, posed by a job-searching student to the professional advice column Ask a Boss (answered by the ever-wise Alison Green) states this common concern quite succinctly. As Ms. Green states, meeting people who do work that interests you isn't selfish. Meeting people when you are a hopeful, curious novice is one way that you can making an contribution to a vibrant and inclusive professional sphere.
Here's what I wish every student knew and believed about seeking professional contacts: you are worth knowing.
Here's what I wish every student knew and believed about seeking professional contacts: you are worth knowing. You will benefit when you meet people in your field, certainly--but it is also true that knowing you, sharing knowledge with you, answering your questions, introducing you to colleagues, and even mentoring you benefits the people who are already established in your field, too. Networking is not inevitably about feeding your ambition with false friendships, trying to work the angles of every relationship to find ways to get what you want. Networking, at its most basic, is making an effort to meet new people. There's nothing exploitative or "slimy" about that.
When I coach my students on their professional plans, I encourage them to reframe networking in their minds. When you network, you are joining a community. When you create new ties, you open up channels for sharing knowledge, prompting questions, and you link others together in new ways. This frame for understanding networking diminishes anxiety and diffuses the "weird" feeling that comes from swapping handshakes and business cards--and it's a frame that can enhance anyone's experiences, no matter how well-established they are in a career or industry.
When my students adopt the networking-as-community perspective, they are more open to guidance about how to do it and how to do it well. First, I coach them to think about the types of things they would like to talk about, the perspectives they would like to learn more about, and the ways of working that make them feel curious instead of thinking about what they want to get hired to do. From those foundation interests, we work together to identify people who seem to be interested in similar conversations. Then, I support them as they request introductions, conduct informational interviews, and reflect upon what they learn from their new colleagues.
When students recognize that they can engage with people in authentic ways and have substantive, insightful, and mutually interesting discussions, they feel compelled to meet more people, make more connections, and learn more about the world. They feel more empowered to go to diverse events, like mixers hosted on campus, industry conferences, or chamber of commerce programs, and more ready to reach out to request introductions from people they already know. They get better at the slightly scary parts of reaching out to strangers because they see that the results can be meaningful. Networking still takes work, but it no longer feels "weird."
When any one of us makes the effort to meet new people, our entire community gets a little bigger, a little brighter, a little more rich. We are all worth knowing.