Elephants and Business Cards
It's been almost a year since I graduated from Montana State University. Looking back, I remember the difficulty and challenge of graduate school, particularly the final semester. The expectations to produce quality work, trying to decide what I wanted to do with my life once I graduated, and still taking care of everyday life issues like bills and chores consumed much of my time and energy. It was a very formative time in life for me and, thanks to some good influences, I knew enough to know that it was an opportunity to really set myself up for success. As I pushed hard to make the most of this stage in life, it became apparent to me that in order to best prepare myself for the dreams and visions I had, I needed to play the great game of networking. Yes, networking. I call it a game because I believe that for me, and many others, it can often feel like nothing more than a superficial masquerade of insincere ladder-climbers just looking to expand their professional empire one equally insincere contact at a time. To many, the term "networking event" is nearly synonymous with "acting class", making the whole charade almost laughable. The disturbing truth about these career advancing opportunities is that more often than not, the cover charge includes more than just a chunk of change but also a little piece of your genuineness. If people weren't so intent on strategically avoiding this elephant in the room they might just try to give him a business card after flashing their well-rehearsed, "let-me-kiss-your-baby", toothy grin.
Is this what professional growth requires? The sacrifice of your integrity and the self-created ignorance of people's inherent need to be desired simply for their humanity rather than being a potential stepping stone for someone's lofty aspirations? Why can't the focus of networking be something more, something deeper than the superficiality that the world has known for so long? Allow me to answer my rhetorical question. Behind the idea of networking is the idea of something greater, something that extends beyond petty steps towards self-advancement. I remember this first becoming apparent to me the summer I worked as an intern at 100 Fold Studio (remember when I told you in my first blog that you'd see this name more than once?). As I started my internship, I quickly realized that John was much less interested in the outcome of a project than he was in the outcome of a relationship. You see at 100 Fold Studio, the lesson you quickly learn is that the work the firm does is meant to connect with people, not the other way around. In fact that's why their tagline is "Building Eternal Relationships", not "Designing Sweet Stuff". The twisting of this prioritization of relationships over work is what I believe has led to the creation of this self-centered "networking game" and it is ultimately an exhaustive and fruitless endeavor. However, if you are willing to attack the root of the issue and replace your idol of self with a passion for people, networking suddenly becomes a new and refreshing activity. After all, wouldn't you prefer to build eternal relationships rather than a temporary empire?
As I was writing this blog, I read an interesting story about Peter Drucker, commonly known as the Father of Management for his incredible wisdom and insight into business and market trends. When a friend of his asked why his personal library contained more fictional books than books that directly related to his profession, Peter thought for a second and answered by saying, "Fiction teaches you about human beings - how they think, how they behave, what's important to them. I'm more interested in people than I am in how businesses work." (Buford, Bob. Drucker & Me: What a Texas Entrepreneur Learned from the Father of Modern Management. Print.) What incredible insight. If we truly believe that people matter more than profession, why can't our networking and business practices reflect that? The interesting thing about shifting one's mindset to caring about relationship first and foremost is that, while you may feel less efficient or productive at times than when you used relationship building solely for personal gain, nine times out of ten you will experience greater success either instantaneously or further down the road (people have a way of knowing when they're being used, and they tend not to like it). And while this increase in efficiency is certainly not the ultimate goal (if that's what you get from this this, please return to the start of my post and read it again), it simply goes to show you that building healthy relationships is good for business too. So if you find yourself motivated to win but are simultaneously trapped in a game you don't want to play, take some time and ask yourself what your end goal is, relationships or empire.