You hear about it everywhere. In class, from friends, and online. It’s what your advisors tell you to do. It’s what your friends say they’ve done. And it’s probably something that you don’t understand. I know when I came into college my first semester, I didn’t understand it.
So I’m writing this to the first-semester version of myself. I want to clear up some misconceptions about networking, explain what it really is, and tell him why it’s important. And trust me, it is important.
So what is networking? I think most people would tell you something like this:
“Networking is how you get a job. Meet people in your industry, find connections, and use them to get into industry.”
And while some parts of that are fairly accurate, that definition has a couple of problems.
Problem #1: It focuses too much on a weird end goal. The first thing that most people don’t understand about networking is that it is not how you get a job. The point of networking, first and foremost, is to meet people who are tackling problems and working on projects that you care about. Why would you want to network your way into a job you hate? The focus of networking isn’t to find a job – it’s to find opportunities that line up with your interests and the people who are exploring them.
Problem #2: It doesn’t explain why it’s necessary. A common thing I hear about with networking from friends is that “I don’t need to network because it’s silly – I’ll just be really good at what I do because everything is a meritocracy eventually anyway.” Unfortunately, that’s not true. Companies, organizations, and firms are all groups of people, and those people are the ones who ultimately make decisions. As much as you think you’re applying to Google, Medtronic, Facebook, or Deloitte as a whole, your application is ultimately going to be reviewed by a real person. And that means that if you can make a positive impression on that person before he or she looks at your application, you make your job infinitely easier.
Problem #3: It makes networking sounds boring and mundane. One of the biggest problems I have with this type of definition is that it makes networking sound like a chore. “Do this thing because you have to – it’s mandatory but not fun.” In reality, if you’re spending your time pursuing the right leads, talking to the right people, and engaging in the right conversations, it should be fun and engaging. The whole point, after all, is to find and talk to people who are tackling problems you care about.
Ultimately, I think a much better definition of networking is this:
“Networking is how you meet people who care about solving the same problems that you do. You meet passionate people, discover new organizations, and work with them to find new opportunities.”
Insofar as that new definition is true, you should look at networking as a chance to amplify your own impact in the world. It’s a chance to find collectives of people that will work on big problems with you. And because of that, it’s both necessary and awesome.