Four Tips to Network Without Losing Your Sense of Self

networking event

Networking is one of D.C.’s most widely practiced professional tools, manifesting itself in the form of grandiose dinners, public events, and laid-back happy hours all throughout the city. Theoretically, networking sounds simple: you walk into a room, have your little professional spiel ready, people listen, and by the end of the night, you’ve found that “in” for your next dream job, right? Wrong! Networking is hard, and often makes college students feel out of place. Here’s a laundry list of four tips that can help you make connections and retain your sense of self at an upcoming networking event:

1. Be Patient, Chillax, and Take Things Slowly.

In TED’s “In Praise of Slowness,” Carl Honoré talks to us about how the pace of life in the West can have negative impacts on our mental states and overall productivity. We’re habituated to believe that faster is better, but in actuality, taking moments to slow down can give us the time we need to partake in more genuine, intentional actions.

When networking, there’s no need to keep pace with people in a room. If you’re the type of person who navigates the world slowly and carefully, don’t feel pressured to have to switch gears and adapt to your environment. The further you speed away from your norm, the harder it gets to be yourself and provide a strong first impression.

2. Don’t be Picky.

Charismatic people are irresistible —they make us feel welcomed, energized, and comfortable within just moments of meeting them. There’s a HUGE note of caution, however. Though Rosabeth Kanter of the Harvard Business Review believes charisma is a necessary tool for leaders and entrepreneurs alike, Kanter’s colleague, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, notes charisma is often self-serving and disguises “egocentricity, deceit, manipulativeness, and selfishness.” 

Keep in mind that you’re networking to better your own professional network, not bolster someone else’s. Rather than flocking towards the individual who’s drawing the crowds, invest some time in the wallflowers; not only are you more likely to sustain 1-to-1 conversations, but also, you’ll remain more memorable if and when you decide to follow up. At the end of the day, you’re looking to develop and maintain mutually beneficial relationships, not have a “one network stand.”

3. Treat People Like People, Not Assets.

Last summer, I had the opportunity to research education development in India with the TATA Group, a Fortune 500 Global company. One of my mentors was extremely excited for me, emphasizing that I should use the opportunity to network hard and meet as many corporate officials as possible. I appreciated his advice, but I also felt it stemmed from a mentality that seeks to emphasize the quantity of networks, versus the quality of people with whom I choose to associate.

Some professionals like to do just that: keep things professional. In this case, I think it’s all right to reel in as many fish in one go, but when the time comes to ask for a favor, don’t count on these individuals following through. In most cases, I’d argue that professionals seek to surround themselves with well-qualified individuals who can provide value to the workplace beyond productivity. They want positive energy, a workplace friend, and someone who’s interesting. Don’t be afraid to talk about that latest basketball upset, your favorite cooking channel, or a mind-blowing documentary.

In short, be the person who gets invited to happy hour, not the one who’s assigned to work after hours.

4. Don’t Be Afraid to Feel Lost— Everyone Has Been There.

Whether it’s the slew of college, job, or scholarship applications we complete, or the desire to impress our families and friends, many of us are taught to pretend like we have our lives mapped out. Ask typical college students what they want to be when they grow up, and most will give extremely detailed responses. Then, move on to ask them why, and you’re in for what seems to me like a momentary existential crisis.

It’s okay to have a vague idea of where you’d like to take your career, and I’d argue embracing this mentality actually plays to one’s benefit. Be willing to embrace gaps in your knowledge, and try to figure out where others can fill it. While the student with the rehearsed elevator speech inadvertently shuts out individuals outside of their field, the individual seeking active conversation and learning has the potential to attract almost anyone in the room. Keep in mind, merely 27% of graduates have jobs related to their degrees, and it’s very likely your career will constantly change over time.

At this point in our lives, networking is about learning from those who have already trudged our paths, and I can guarantee you, everyone knows something you don't.

Gurchit Chatha is a senior at UC Berkeley studying Political Science. He is currently interning for the Brookings Institution’s Center for Effective Public Management as a Matsui Washington Fellow. 

Photo by flickr user ukodi