"It's not what you know; it's who."
"Always carry a business card."
"Make a good first impression."
"Network, network, network."
I'd had all that advice and more drilled into my head long before graduation day. I had a vague idea of networking as attending fancy cocktail parties, where I'd lure besuited members of the industry elite into my spiderweb of contacts by impressing them with my witty banter. In my mind, Katherine Hepburn à la The Philadelphia Story would be the ideal networking woman.
This made the whole prospect more than a little intimidating. How was I supposed to be coiffed, classy and memorable whilst sipping the free champagne at these imagined events? On the other hand, if I eschewed alcohol altogether, how was I going to convince my innately shy self to peel off the nearest wall and go talk to a bunch of strangers?
I decided to practice with some less intimidating meetings. A pub night for new writers in the area sounded like an easy place to start.
Ten minutes into said pub night, I was no longer so sure. All the other writers hung in clusters around the cramped bar, waving over their heads at old friends across the room and trading battle stories with their compatriots as they bought rounds of beer. I hovered in the corner near the snack plates and smiled halfheartedly at a few people who wandered in my direction. One woman asked if I wrote picture books for kids. When I shook my head, she handed me a business card with cartoon cats on it and wandered off.
Well, that counts as one contact, I tried to reassure myself.
Then I noticed another woman, about my age, returning for her third helping of trail mix. She caught me watching and grinned. "Thank god for the food, right? Everything else about this is painfully awkward."
I smiled, relieved that I wasn't the only one feeling that way. Soon, she and I were deep in conversation about our favorite books and the types of stories we liked to write. We didn't exchange business cards, just friended each other on Facebook as we were leaving the bar, a few pints heavier now. On the train home that evening, I felt like a failure. It was great to make a new friend, but I was supposed to be networking!
With who, I was no longer sure.
So I kept going to as many parties as I could find. Often, my writer friend from that first drinks night would accompany me, a sort of platonic wingwoman. We leaned on each other for conversation when no one else was feeling chatty. At least with two of us lurking in the corner, we didn't feel so conspicuous.
Over time, I acquired a handful of new friends -- people I invited to apartment-warming parties and accompanied to book launches. But my "business network" still looked shabby. My LinkedIn page consisted of current coworkers and college friends. I had no idea who to email if a friend asked me for a job reference, let alone if I ever decided to look for a new position.
Still, my new friends were fun. There was the literary agent I slipped out of a cocktail party with to grab pizza because the organizers hadn't provided food (for an event full of writers and publishers, this was unheard of). There were the agents and editors who danced on tables with me at a holiday party. There was my hipster boss at work, who was forever giving me lists of bands I needed to listen to immediately. There were the marketing managers from other companies who attended the same conferences I did. Whenever I was the only person from my company present, they were always kind enough to invite me out to their business dinners.
Years passed, and still I bemoaned my terrible networking skills. I'd go to a talk and instead of chatting innovative ideas with higher up directors, I would spend the whole evening ranting to a publicist about Game of Thrones.
It didn't hit me until I met a newcomer at work, a woman who had just moved to New York City from California, brand new to the industry. We bonded over a shared distaste for cafeteria food (really, food is how I connected with most of my New York friends), and I invited her to a science writers event, since I'd been promised the hors d'oeuvres were to die for.
As we arrived at the event, I waved to a group I recognized across the room, then introduced her to a string of attendees who caught me in the drinks line to say hello.
"Wow, you know everybody!" she called over the din of voices. "How did you make such a big network?"
Surprised, I laughed. "I don't know, they're just my friends."
But in the end, I realized, when you need a reference, a referral, advice on your current position or help seeking out a new one, a network of friends is exactly what you need. Friends will bend over backwards to help you out, because they know you'd do the same for them.