An Unexpected Lesson
I went to graduate school for acting. In my third year of the program, we had an industry coach come as a guest speaker to talk about building a career, seeking out agents - all the business things of becoming an actor. I'll be honest - when I first read the title of her book and heard her speak, I rolled my eyes at the thought of a "life coach" person giving touchy feely motivational advice.
And then she said the thing that has been a pillar of my working life ever since.
"Don't network," she said. This advice seemed absurd in an industry that is all about building connections, all about getting known and seen by the right casting agents and agencies, all about establishing industry ins that could lead to a big break or opportunity. However, it quickly became apparent how right she was.
What It Actually Means
Perhaps it didn't start this way, but the very term "networking" has come to carry with it a connotation of connecting with someone with the expectation of a return. You "network" by talking to people who could potentially benefit or help you out. For me, it was the thing I hated most about working as an actor and writer in LA; with some folks, it always felt like they were sizing you up and seeing if it was worthwhile to "befriend" you. It left many conversations with certain people feeling icky and slimy, coated with a veneer of false niceties and manipulation.
The thing is, those conversations are unpleasant to be in on either side. People can also see and sense disingenuous motives from a mile away. Even when "networking" is done within a professional setting and construct, it can still feel artificial and weird.
What to Do Instead
Instead of networking, make genuine connections. Build genuine relationships.
"Wait a minute," says the hypothetical skeptical reader, "this sounds like semantics. Tomayto tomahto. You're still reaching out and connecting to people. What's the difference?"
I'm glad you asked, conveniently constructed hypothetical questioner! The key difference between networking and building genuine connections is one of intention.
Networking is self-oriented: how can I get others to help me advance my goals? Networking advice often talks about how to introduce yourself, how to put yourself out there, etc.
In contrast, forging a connection helps you to position a meeting more as a serving of others: I want to learn more about your work; I genuinely love what you do and want to learn more about your process.
It's the difference in asking "what's in it for me?" vs "what can I learn and offer?"
How To Do It: The Secret is Delicious
Approaching someone you admire is hard. Approaching someone who potentially has the ability to open doors and big opportunities for you is harder. How do you do it without appearing desperate or like you're begging for a job, and how can you build a genuine relationship that isn't just you wanting something from that person?
The (not-so) secret: ask them to lunch. (Who doesn't like lunch?) Then, talk about their work, not yours.
All along my path and growth and as an artist and professional, there's been one constant. People go above and beyond to help you out and lift you up. Seriously. It's pretty amazing. I am where I am because of the generosity of talented people further along on their career paths helping me out, serving as a mentor, and giving me amazing guidance, advice, and encouragement. Folks are happy to share their experience, because guess what - they got where they are due to someone else doing the same thing.
Talk to folks about what they do. Most folks will be happy to share their story with you. Ask people who you admire about their work. Learn more about what they make. In doing so, you'll also reveal your own taste, and how your work and interests are in alignment with said person. Spend more time listening than talking, ask more questions, and forge the start of a genuine friendship.
Instead of a networked relationship that holds no deeper ties or meaning beyond a tenuous professional exchange, you're building a deeper connection with someone. That friendship might manifest in them thinking of you when an opportunity arises. It might just be a great learning opportunity as they share their work and process with you. It probably means you've gotten to become friends with someone who you think is awesome. And if you're really lucky, you might be able to help them out in a professional or personal problem. One of my most proud moments was getting to recommend an outstanding actor friend to a director I admired, and watch that actor kick butt in the project and collaboration that ensued.
I've had the pleasure of eating sandwiches with some industry legends. I've made many friends with folks who became my mentor figures, then bosses, over Indian food and banter about games. I've learned more about coworkers and their process, and subsequently worked better and more efficiently in collaborations as a result.
Words for Thought
I'll end this meditation on networking with these two quotes.
The first: "When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
The second: "Do good and throw it into the sea."
Don't network. Build connections, and dare to share your dreams and wants with people who you care about and care about you. (There's more of them than you think, and people just waiting for the opportunity to root for you, if you just ask.) Then, do good by them, think about how your work can help others, and put it out there - and let it go. Act without the expectation of return, and revel in the surprising and delightful bounty that will surely wash upon your shores when you least expect.