The Terror of Professional Networking

networking

Networking–attending happy hours, scheduling informational interviews, nurturing lines of communication with contacts–is the road to future success. At least with my resume, blindly responding to job postings is not likely to lead anywhere. So I schedule meetings. I do so from my desk at home, in my pajamas. It’s worry free, perfunctory and as easy as hitting “send.”

Most of the time, the senior member of the DC professional world will be forced to reschedule, or tweak the agreed upon time AT LEAST once. Of course there is no ill-intent here. But being rescheduled reminds me that I am less important than pretty much everything else on the senior professional’s schedule. Necessity has had unconscious effect of establishing the power dynamic. I become intensely aware of my fragile ego which kicks in and begins telling me how small, insignificant and pathetic I am in the eyes of the world.

The day of the meeting comes and I am no longer feeling the disconnected ease I felt at home in my pajamas. I am now on my way to interface with a real person who will notice every averted glance, bead of sweat and incorrect answer. I will be judged.

What have I gotten myself into?

Most people I’ve met professionally like to begin by saying that they once were sitting where I am now and that they relied on the advice and help of senior professionals when they were beginning a career. They imply that they are just giving back–completing the cycle of bringing in new talent and doing their part to perpetuate the culture and the world at-large. This attitude, even if true, has always puzzled me. Am I to take it that should I survive, it will be incumbent upon me to do the same? Is this the theater of feigned humility? Am I being reminded that I’m playing a small, but critical role in the elaborate bulwarks that keep the earth spinning?

In a conversation with uneven balance of power, the one asking the questions steers the direction, content and tone of the discussion. If I am on the wrong end of this I am exposed as a wide-eyed, naif. But it’s not a simple matter of just asking all the questions I’ve listed ahead of time in a notebook. If I am to make a good impression I must engage directly, reacting to each answer with appropriate followup questions that will indicate my interest, understanding and further curiosity.

I am there to learn, but it’s very important not let the pendulum swing all the way in the other direction. If that happens, the meeting will no longer be a discussion, but a lecture. Sensing this, the senior professional begins to feel uncomfortable and quickly reverts to boilerplate items of advice. She will resent my making her feel uncomfortable and leave with a negative or forgettable impression. I will recognize my failure and spend the rest of the day hating myself and will be dissuaded and even more anxious about future meetings with other resources.

If I am successful at an informational meeting, I leave feeling calm, and that I have asked more questions than I have answered. Shared laughter. Dispensed with formality.

Some people, you just feel comfortable around. It’s almost always when they’re willing not to bother with the “rules.” But DC is a very proper city and people tend to play socialization straight.

For me the problem is self-awareness. This goes far beyond professional networking and into deep-seeded social anxiety. I am most “myself” when I feel I can safely emerge from an emotionally defensive posture and yet, confined by the rigid decorum of professionalism, that’s really hard to do. If I am distracted by trying to follow conventions that are completely unnatural, how can I be an individual?

I’m forced to confront the problem of authority (which necessitates conventions and social-norms). The whole point to suppress individuality in order to maintain a sense of order. No matter the situation, professional, party or chance encounter, if the person I’m talking to clings to convention I can’t figure out how to talk naturally; after all how are we supposed to “be ourselves” if convention encourages us to ignore all the most interesting things about each other?

Please everyone. Do me a favor and say “fuck” a few times if you really want me to talk to you.

I feel the strain of the ego pulling on me. I am reminded, through the cycle of hope, imagination and disappointment that most difficult obstacle is travelling between all the time spent alone, and the crucial times when I have to present myself to the people who could change my life.

To seek anything new and ambitious is to expose oneself to vulnerability whenever confronting the inevitable loneliness that sets in when the rest of the world is heading off to work and I’m sitting on the couch. I have to remind myself constantly not to trust the self-doubt and risk-aversion that means to perpetuate my current state, whatever that may be. This is the challenge of self-motivation. In our world of the 40-hour work week we are programmed to be occupied or exhausted most of the time. The constant preoccupation distracts us from the dangerous realm of self-reflection. But I say self-reflection is a good thing. It teaches me not to be afraid of self-defeating impulses. The key, is taking that fearlessness into the world.

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