Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Networking 101

I used to think that networking was a load of rot. Don't get me wrong - I knew there was a point to making connections with people with similar interests or relevant skills.   I just didn't understand why someone would go to a networking event just to talk to lots of strangers with nothing of use to share, or why they'd make so many random connections. And I certainly didn't understand how someone could enjoy it. Every time I was placed in a networking situation, I found it incredibly stressful. I'd focus on asking other people about their lives to avoid the panic of talking about myself. As soon as they asked me a direct question about me, I started to feel like a fake and a phoney.

I'm willing to admit my mistakes. I realise now that networking can be awesome.  In my defence, I was probably led astray by a running buddy, who was in the habit of handing her business card to everyone she met. Everyone. At the time, she was an academic in the field of entrepreneurship, and I was working in human motor control at a different university. She came to visit me after delivering a guest lecture, and before long my research group was taking cover as the business cards came flying at us on rapid fire.

But the real reason I hated networking events was because I didn't believe in what I was doing. It wasn't me. It wasn't real. Given the opportunity to network with energetic, exciting people who were passionate about what they did made me feel inadequate.  I would instead seek out others like me — those who hated their jobs, felt disconnected from their peers and organisation, or didn't see the point in what they were doing.

Last night, I went to an event with lots of "creative types" — mostly musicians. (It was the launch party for Clare Reynolds' new album, Colour my Heart.) I networked. I didn't meet many new people, but I listened with genuine interest to their stories and came away feeling like my life had been enriched. Every person I met was a new opportunity. And when they asked me, "So, what do you do?" I didn't shy away. I stated proudly that I'm unemployed and hoping to go back to uni next session to study writing.

So, what changed? A lot, actually. First, I left my job in mid-March. (I will leave it to the reader to interpret that as a resignation, termination or redundancy.) I hated my job. I hated the complete lack of direction that I was given. I even hated getting out of bed in the morning, because that meant I'd have to go to work. While most people may not enjoy being unemployed, I thought it was the best thing that could happen in my life at the time. I enjoyed my time off, hiking in Western Australia with my boyfriend, visiting friends and running races in the US. And, when I came back, I went to a lunchtime seminar at QUT.

I've worked with a lot of smart people. I know intelligence when I see it demonstrated. These speakers (Dr Lyn Bishop, Mike Boyd) were clever. But, more importantly, they were passionate. They knew who they were. They knew what they wanted from life — and they were determined to get it. And, in particular, Mike Boyd challenged me to seek the same. He addressed the whole audience, but somehow he spoke directly to me,  telling me that I know what I want to do and I just need to accept it and embrace it. So I took a note on my page: "Things I could do every day for the rest of my life — run, sing, write." 

Out of necessity, I applied some reasoning. Running is a good way to keep fit. Singing is a good way to keep happy. I do neither of these things well enough to make money. But, maybe, just maybe, I could find a job where I get paid to write. It won't be the handsome salary I got as an investment firm manager, and it won't sound as glamorous as being a quantum physicist, but I know I will enjoy it. First, I will need to hone my skills through practising, getting feedback and learning more about the craft. Then, I will need to hunt for opportunities.

Ahhh — networking. Yes, of course. Now that I know what I want to do, I'm one of those passionate, energised people.  So, last night, when I told others what I hope to achieve, they believed me. They believed that I'll accomplish my end goal, even though I barely have a plan on how to get there.  They believed because I believe. I'm no longer a fake and a phoney. I can network, and I can enjoy it.
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