A couple of months ago, I was speaking on a panel at the Sundance Film Festival about how we might reimagine education to provide people more professional and economic mobility without having to go to college.
After the panel, a man walked up to me and said, “I’m a true believer. I have money. I have connections. Let me help you.”
In that moment I imagined he was going to offer me a $1 million, enough to fund my initiative and kickstart the radical change to adult education I think we need to start preparing people for the future of work. I was so filled with emotion that, after exchanging business cards, I literally cried with joy into the arms of a stranger.
More on that in a minute.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess this is not the kind of experience you typically have when you are “networking.”
I feel comfortable making that assumption because, not that long ago, it wasn’t typical for me either.
Like most people, when I thought about networking, I had something I wanted to get out of it. Maybe I wanted to be considered for a big project at work. Once I started my own business, maybe I was looking for clients or referrals.
What actually happened was often depressing. I was either making small talk with someone who had no interest in me or my work or I was at the mercy of someone in the middle of a sales pitch who was constantly scanning the room for someone more interesting.
This is precisely why networking has such a bad name and why it is often ineffective at best or counterproductive at worst. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Think Connection, Not Transactions
The first thing you have to wrap your head around is the purpose of networking.
Most people go into networking opportunities with a transactional mindset, rather than one seeking connection.
This is true even of the advice that encourages you provide other people value before asking for anything for yourself. It sounds generous, but it’s still coming from an expectation of reciprocity. And that motivation, quite frankly, sucks.
What I’ve found to be a lot more effective and definitely more fun is to approach each interaction as an opportunity to connect.
How do you do that? Just start talking about what moves you.
In fact, I try to start most conversations with people I don’t know using the question, “So, what are you passionate about?” No matter what comes out of that conversation, I know it will be interesting and time well spent.
Now, if I’m at an event to specifically advance my business, for example, that doesn’t mean I start a conversation around my hobbies (though there’s nothing wrong with that if it offers a way to truly connect with the person in front of me). It just means that I start my conversation around the why of my business, the reason I think my work is meaningful and important, to see if this is something that speaks to their heart, too.
Ultimately, what you’re really looking for is partners—people who are invested in the same causes and outcomes you are. This makes helping each other both easy and natural, because their success is your success. You offer assistance not because you expect something in return, but because you both care about the result.
How to Fall in Love with Networking
What this means is that networking is only effective when you can bring something to the conversation that you really care about.
If you’re looking for a job, but you can’t describe why the work makes the world a better place, chances are your networking won’t be effective either.
If you want a brilliant example of what this looks like, watch how author J.R.R. Tolkien describes why he wants to write a book. Even if you weren’t a book publisher, you’d likely want to be a part of what Tolkien was creating too, for who among us doesn’t understand the strange things we do in order to prove ourselves?
Not everyone will hear you and want to help. That’s the point. By leading with your passions, you attract exactly and only the right people.
This strategy can work for you even if unsure what your big mission is.
When I was early in my moonshot and I only had a vague sense of the problem I wanted to tackle, without having a clue of how to address it, people loved serving as a sounding board for me and sharing book suggestions.
When I wanted to convene a meeting of experts to create a vision for the human experience of work in the age of AI and automation, people loved to recommend experts I might want to invite and organizations that might serve as sponsors.
And now that I’m narrowing in on a solution, people love to suggest partners or possible sources of funding.
This kind of networking is so effective, I often spend two to three days a week following up with new connections or introductions. Most of those conversations don’t have an earth-shattering result. But it does offer real connection with real people who share my passions and values. I’m delighted to know them and share time with them, regardless of what comes out of it.
Now back to my Sundance experience.
The person I connected with was drawn to my mission because we both believe that people are capable of far more than others think. We believe that one of the biggest mistakes we make as a society is writing people off rather than finding alternative ways to nurture and express people’s innate potential.
Based on his experience launching a related idea for disadvantaged youth, he helped me see there were many other ways I could realize my moonshot than I had originally considered. In fact, after our first follow-up call, I brainstormed 8 different business models I could pursue.
What he showed me was that I wasn’t quite ready for funding yet. I still had more design work to do.
That insight was priceless.
But I also know that when I’m ready and if it makes sense with my model, he’s prepared to share a system with me to build partnerships that allowed him to raise more than 15x what I was initially looking for in funding.
There’s a saying, “Go big or go home.”
When it comes to networking, it might be “Either make the world a better place, or stay home.”
Anything else is probably just a waste of time.