I don’t network anymore. In fact, every time I hear someone proclaim the need to network, I can’t help but cringe. It brings to mind awkward interactions at happy hours, stunted discussions about job responsibilities, desperate attempts to continue (or end) conversations, and a general feeling of discomfort.
I recognize the advantages of knowing people in many places, of course, but the term “networking” has always seemed disingenuous to me. When I google “define networking,” for example, one of the results reads: [to] interact with other people to exchange information and develop contacts, especially to further one’s career. It’s that last part that doesn’t sit well with me. If the underlying goal of networking is to further one’s career, authenticity becomes much less attainable and truly connecting with others becomes incredibly difficult. Even impossible. Without authenticity, those connections also lose their power.
When I used to network, I often struggled to engage in fluid conversations with people. My interactions seemed superficial and awkward, because I was compelled to keep the focus on career-related topics, and the need to make a business connection was always on my mind. Since networking is frequently put into quantitative terms, I always felt like my goal was to increase the number of contacts I made. You often hear, for example, that successful networking equates to an increase in the size of your network. Additionally, one of the most prominent indicators on any LinkedIn profile is the number of connections a person has. All of this made networking feel overwhelming and my interactions feel transactional.
Subsequently, I changed my perspective.
Instead of networking, I began to see my interactions with others as an effort to develop—or better yet, cultivate—relationships. The difference is far more than semantic. It involves an entirely different way of approaching and getting to know others. Relationships describe more meaningful and natural connections between people. When you develop relationships, you connect with people, because they are inherently interesting. There isn’t an underlying motive that only benefits you.
Even at what would be considered “networking events,” I began to chat with people without considering whether or not they would be able to help me or further my career in the future. I strived to have really great, sincere conversations with people, rather than talking to as many people as I could. Sometimes conversations were heavily career-focused and that was okay, but I also connected with others on college experiences, favorite recipes, funny memes, and more. That change in perspective made “networking” so much easier and so much more fun.
Moreover, it has actually helped me build a stronger network.
This past weekend, for instance, I went up to New York to visit a group of colleagues. We originally met in a professional setting and, by the common definition, these people are part of my “network.” However, no networking was involved in our initial connection. We bonded over Beyoncé, The Baby-Sitters Club, and travel experiences. We bonded in the same way people bond in a non-professional setting. And now, we’re friends.
Because I have a real relationship with all of them, I’m able to reach out for a favor and know that they wouldn’t expect anything in return. Similarly, they can do the same with me. Of course, that’s not to say that we often reach out to each other for favors, but the point is that we could. We can give and take without pretense. It’s not a strictly transactional interaction.
The importance of networking, networking, networking is declared over and over again in the working world, and I agree that it’s important (and great!) to know people at different companies or in different fields and roles. But what’s the point of knowing 500 people and only feeling comfortable reaching out to three of them? I believe that the way we make those connections is even more important. When you approach your interactions with others without regard to how they might further your career, but instead with the goal of forming natural and authentic relationships, you build a “network” that is more sustainable and—most importantly—more meaningful in the long run.
This article was originally published on Career Contessa.