Learning to Network: Fake It till You Make It
Would you believe networking is discussed in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice? Mr. Darcy says he is “ill-qualified to recommend [himself] to strangers” and that he has not got “the talent which some people possess … of conversing easily with those I have never seen before.” In other words, he is shy and awkward in social situations, so others consider him to be proud and rude.
Elizabeth Bennet and Colonel Fitzwilliam tell Darcy it is because he “will not give himself the trouble” and that if he practiced, then he could improve. Lizzie likens it to her playing the piano: She is not as good at it as others, but her assumption is that is due to lack of practice, not lack of talent.
I find this passage in Pride and Prejudice striking—and personal. For me, talking with strangers is very hard, so I avoid it. That strategy has not improved my ability to network! At conferences, if I focus on my strengths of preparing and giving presentations, my talks get better, but my ability to network does not improve. My failure is a failure to communicate and confer, except with people I already know. This weakens my chances of learning new ideas.
Learning is about allowing ourselves to fail. Failure is part of learning; we have to do things we are not good at in order to become better at them. If we only work on our strengths, we become unbalanced, and we miss opportunities to grow.
It isn’t that we cannot network. Rather, as Lizzie says, we just need to practice at it. To learn networking, we have to take the risk of failing and do what we fear. This means taking small steps to open up.
Start by giving other people the opportunity to talk. Mr. Darcy says, “I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done.” Notice he says “appear interested.” In order to network, if we are not genuinely interested in what the other person is saying, we still have to pretend to be—to ask questions and to listen to the answers.
Think of this pretending as “pre-tending,” or the action we take “before tending.” We start to tend and care, and then we find conversations rewarding. We discover that networking is easier than we thought. All we need is some questions to get others talking, and then we listen, nod, smile, and fit in.
At STAREAST, there will be opportunities to network. This year, I’m going to practice a little more. Will you? Let’s try, fail, and take steps toward more success in networking.