Laura Smith

Master's Candidate at New York University

With Support From

Misadventures in Networking

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A few weeks ago, I was invited to a "Media Mingle" at NYU’s Journalism Institute, where I am a graduate student. Before attending this networking event, we received a helpful set of mingling tips from our well-intentioned Career Services staff:

Begin each conversation with a smile, eye contact and an outstretched hand.

Break the ice by simply saying ‘MY NAME IS …’

On the one hand, these suggestions made me wonder if Career Services thinks we’re antisocial basement-dwellers from planet Moron. On the other hand, the tips are clearly coming in response to real misgivings and misconceptions that we have about networking.

Chief among them: Networking is awkward, and often it doesn’t work. With the event looming, I re-read Gay Talese’s famous profile, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” and I came across a poignant scene of failed networking. A friend of Sinatra’s, Vincent DeRosa, approaches Sinatra about his daughter’s singing career.

She’s also got a little talent, I think, Frank, as a singer,” DeRosa says.

Sinatra was silent for a moment, then said, ‘Yes, but it’s very good for her to get her education first, Vincenzo.’

This scene, viewed through the eyes of a vulnerable graduate student, is heartbreaking. The pain is caused by the swiftness and ease of Sinatra’s rebuff, and by DeRosa’s dutiful reply: “Yes, Frank... Well, goodnight, Frank.”

I was so haunted by this scene that I went to the Nieman Foundation’s annotated version of the story to see what Talese thought of it. Here’s what he had to say:

I, Gay Talese, can understand it. Every time I go to a journalism class, invited by some guy at NYU or Columbia, after the class is over, and I’m about to leave to go to dinner somewhere, somebody comes up to me. “Mr. Talese, can I have your address? I’d like to write to you.” I say, “Listen, I’m here now to talk to you, but I’m going back home and maybe I’m going to leave town because I have something I want to write.” Because you know what’s going to happen? They’re going to send me a novel, a short story, an article. And they’re going to want me to place it for them.

I posted the quote on my program’s private Facebook page, and we were in general agreement that he, Gay Talese, was a putz. But while it’s tempting to dismiss Talese’s comment as insensitive, it serves as a helpful reminder of what it’s like to be on the other end of the networking experience. Networking can be degrading for both parties—the networker is vulnerable to rejection, and the person “being networked” is reduced to a commodity, a means to an end.

Besides, nobody likes shooting people down, being the quasher of dreams, or giving a lot of his or her time to virtual strangers. All of which helps explain why Sheryl Sandberg, in Lean In, describes the typical mentoring request as an “awkward” “mood killer.”

“When I give speeches or attend meetings, a startling number of women introduce themselves and, in the same breath, ask me to be their mentor,” Sandberg writes. “If someone has to ask the question, the answer is probably no.” It is the transparent utility of networking—the self-serving “getting ahead”—that often dooms it.

This is not to say that networking events are useless. Good things can come from brief encounters. But you’re better off cultivating meaningful relationships grounded in authenticity, not being so focused on an end goal that your target can smell your insincerity. Here are a few thoughts on how to play that out:

Don’t look for a silver bullet.

After the Media Mingle, when the head of our program asked how the event went, one woman told him it was awkward: “All the video people were pitching their ideas for documentaries to the Al Jazeera woman.” I know why they did this. We’ve all heard the fables of the guy who pitched an incredibly specific idea to some CEO in an elevator and got hired on the spot.

But while there’s a chance that this Al Jazeera employee was desperately looking for documentary ideas, there is a much greater chance that she was not. These students would be better off finding common ground, rather than hoping for the silver-bullet launch of their own documentaries.

Ask not what your mentor can do for you...

NYU’s Career Services staff did offer at least one savvy piece of advice in the email they sent: Give first. Focus your conversation on LEARNING about the person you are meeting—who they are, where they work, what their responsibilities include—and HOW YOU CAN HELP THEM (NOT how they can help you).

As Talese went on to explain in his annotation on the Sinatra piece: He probably won’t be able to place the piece you gave him. He has enough trouble just placing his own work. So don’t assume the people you network with are automatically in a position to toss you a lifeline.

Keep things organic.

“Don’t network with people,” a professor recently urged me. “Be friends with them.”

The distinction here is that friendships are organic relationships, not founded on the basis of opportunities sought. I don’t think my professor was advising me to do the activities I do with my friends—practicing yoga, gabbing on the phone, drinking in dive bars—with potential professional connections. Instead, she was suggesting that I take the long view when I network: building relationships by helping people in their work, developing a genuine rapport, and sharing ideas and interests.

Expect the unexpected.

When I attended the Media Mingle, I came armed with a list of three people I wanted to talk to. I walked into a room of eager grad students, with each of those three people locked in fierce little circles. So a friend and I decided to hit the beer-and-wine table before venturing any further.

Eventually, we found ourselves standing next to a New York Times travel columnist. The writer wasn’t an obvious connection for me: I don’t aspire to be a travel correspondent. But my friend wanted to talk to him, so I agreed to be his wingwoman. Not wanting anything in particular from this columnist, I loosened up. We talked about his book ideas, the grueling nature of travel, and—for reasons I can’t recall—giant anteaters that live in the Amazonian jungle. I thought nothing of it, went home, and spent a few minutes googling “giant anteaters.”

The next day, because the Career Services tip writers said I should, I sent the writer an email saying it was nice to meet him. He responded, to my surprise, by asking if I was interested in being his research assistant. (In the end, it didn’t work out, because of my school schedule. But still.)

To be sure, this is a rare example of an immediate payoff. But I think it points to an important takeaway from my adventure in mingling: It’s important to take the pressure off a bit. Remember that networking can be uncomfortable for everyone, but don’t be shackled by that fact. Just keep it in mind so you can do what it takes to put the folks you’re networking with at ease.

It’s very unlikely that any single event, any single meeting, will lead directly anywhere. But work connections often come from surprising places. So I plan to take my time, talk to people who have interesting things to say, and try to tone down the part of my brain that is constantly scheming about how to get my foot in the door.

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