You don’t need to have your shit together to start networking

We know that networking is crucial for career growth, but it’s daunting. Good news: you can network when you feel clueless — in fact, it’s one of the most effective ways to figure out your next step.
Pick up the phone and get networking!
Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

I often joke that if I could crowdsource my whole life, I would. I’d ask everyone I know for advice, listen for what resonates with me and then go with it. Because figuring stuff out on your own is Just. So. Hard. There’s a line in an episode of “Girls” where Hannah, Lena Dunham’s character, says, “Why can’t someone just tell me exactly what to do in a way that makes it seem like it’s my idea?” There are moments where I couldn’t relate to that more.

Earlier this year, I went through what I’d call a “career soul search.” I realized I was passively going down a career path I didn’t enjoy, but I didn’t know what to do about it. I knew vaguely what I liked (communication?) and what I didn’t (becoming an expert in a specific area of transportation). I had recently launched a monthly public speaking event at my office. People gave seven-minute presentations (think mini Ted Talks) to colleagues from across the organization and received feedback on how to make them more engaging. The event quickly became the best part of my job, so I knew my dream job would have to include something similarly creative.

I didn’t know what to do next, so I crowdsourced that shit. I drafted an email explaining what my current job was and what I thought I might be interested in. I sent the email to about 40 friends — everyone I knew who had a job that even marginally interested me, or who might have contacts who could help  — and asked for their advice. Most people didn’t respond, and that’s totally fine. I’m sure they either didn’t know how to help or were overwhelmed with their own stuff. But many others sent suggestions: Move to Seattle and work for Amazon. Go back to school. Move around within the transportation field. I even had a friend who is a TV producer in Los Angeles tell me I’d be good at that. (No, I didn’t move to Hollywood.)

Other people gave me contacts and put me in touch with their friends in different fields. Because I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, I talked to almost everyone they suggested. I figured that even if I had a dud conversation and realized whatever this other person did WASN’T for me, it was still a win to learn more about different careers and what I might like.

In the months that followed, I had phone conversations with 1-2 new contacts per week. I talked to people with many different jobs all over the U.S. I kept my goal for these conversations broad and simple: learn about what people do, and be open to any advice they might have for me. Going into conversations without a concrete request can be awkward because you are literally just chitchatting. But it also meant I didn’t need to sell myself, which relieved some of the performance anxiety networking conversations often cause.

I wanted to learn about the tasks people did all day, so I asked specific questions. In my experience, when people talk about work, they often use vague terms or jargon, and I wanted to avoid that. Here are examples of the questions I asked:

  • What was your career path?
  • What are your main tasks at your current job?
  • What is a typical day like for you?
  • Is your job more independent or collaborative?
  • What do you like most about your job?
  • What is the greatest challenge in your job?
  • What advice would you give someone like me?

Some of the conversations led nowhere because I didn’t have much in common with the person. In others, people told me, “I hate my job, you don’t want to do this.” This allowed me to cross things off my list, which was really helpful.

Other conversations were really exciting. I started to hear about jobs that sounded interesting to me. People wanted to connect me with other people. And in all of this, a hopeful narrative emerged: “There are jobs out there that are cool! There are people who want to help me!

Experts agree that “informational interviews” are a crucial networking tool when looking for a new job. But I wouldn’t call the conversations I had during this phase informational interviews. I had no idea what type of information I was looking for, and, full disclosure, I barely prepped for these calls. I’m not advocating being underprepared, but if you feel like you’re at square one, it’s still OK to reach out and talk to others. In fact, it may be the best time to do it. I learned more in these conversations than I could have researching different fields or companies on my own. And I saved myself from pursuing a job that only sounded cool on paper.

Eventually, these conversations helped me learn what I wanted to do and allowed me to move on to a different, more active phase of job seeking. I had always known that I liked writing and making creative stuff to tell a compelling story, but I never knew there was a name for this: “content strategy.” I was able to move on to more focused networking, applying for jobs and eventually landing a job I was super excited about: content strategy for a tech company. And now, I’m not scared to network to learn more about what other people do.

Postscript wisdom

Now that I’m on the other end of this, with people regularly reaching out to me to ask for help or advice, I’ve realized that these conversations can be a big ask because people are really busy and there’s little to nothing in it for them, other than the good feeling of helping someone. To generate good networking karma, do as much as you can to make it convenient and worthwhile for the other person. Work around their schedule, and meet at the location that works best for them. Show up as prepared as possible (read their LinkedIn profile, people!), and ask if there’s anything you can do to help them. These steps will go a long way toward showing people you value them and their time.

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