RIP, networking: is the one skill I owe most to -- obsolete?

My career has been a function of my network. I’ve used it over the years to get jobs, and to achieve more in those roles as the strength of that network compounded. I got my first job on campus as a student, and my second by applying online. But every one since has come from my network -- from people within it reaching out to me, or vica versa. These have mostly been recruiting and talent acquisition roles, making the ability to network a key part of what I do every day.

So when I stumbled onto this Tweet from Naval Ravikant I was intrigued. Naval is a bit of a Silicon Valley sage, and whatever you make of that idea, or whether or not you believe the reputation is warranted, a lot of what he has to say does resonate with me. And he’s right about many things.

Which makes “intrigued” perhaps too kind a term.

I use words like network, resume, credentials. I use these words as the backbone of a career spent building those things. Naval uses them as a punch line.

And it freaked me out.

What if he was right about this, too? What would that mean for someone whose identity is so wrapped up in these concepts; professes to know a thing or two about them, even writes about them? What would it mean for a career spent trading in these currencies, the return on which is now compounding at a higher rate than ever?

And even if I could skate by as is, what would it mean for my kids and how would navigate their careers?  My dad had to (very painfully) circle job ads in a newspaper; then he’d send physical resumes and cover letters in the mail, yo! He sent them to strangers he did not know, who did not know him. I overcompensated for this and set about building as strong a network as I could. And I very much want to pass the ability to network to my kids.

So I filed these unsettling thoughts away, like an ugly shirt that someone gifts you -- at the bottom of a drawer, knowing I’d have to take them out at some point. And I moved on.

Then I bumped into a writer online named David Perrell. One of the concepts he talks about is network-building, and leverage in the context of the Internet. But he offers up a very different approach to the offline networking I know well, encouraging people to take advantage of the global nature and massive scale of the Internet by creating useful content -- blogs, writing, podcasts, videos -- online. He writes:

When you create content, people can access your knowledge without taking your time. You no longer need to sell knowledge by the hour. Your ideas are the most valuable currency in a knowledge-driven economy.

Until recently, the average person wasn’t able to publish and distribute their ideas at a reasonable cost. But on the Internet, anybody, in any corner of the world, in any time zone, can access your best thinking. 24 hours a day. 7 days a week. 365 days a year.

When you publish ideas, you create your own “Serendipity Vehicle” – a magnet for ideas and people and opportunities from potentially every corner of the globe. If your ideas resonate with people, people will discover you and bring you unexpected opportunities. They’ll open doors you never knew existed.

It sounded a lot like networking -- but it was networking in reverse. It would still require “putting yourself out there”, but not out there in-person -- out there on the Internet. And compared to the offline act of, say, asking a panel speaker for their business card, this is you “pulling” people who share your interests into your orbit, using the clarity of your ideas. More efficiently, more asynchronously, and by tapping into the reach and scale of the web.

Now that was intriguing. To be clear: incredibly daunting to someone who’d never published a thing online before! But I was curious, so I dug, and eventually took a plunge: I enrolled in the online writing course that David created, and, well, here I am, writing online.

So what have I learned, four mighty weeks into the effort? Was Naval “right”? Is networking overrated?

A quick anecdote: one of the goals I have this year is to take on a mentee. In the past, I would have gone out and asked my network if they knew of someone who might be a good candidate. But I want to mentor someone different than I am, in terms of place, experience, etc. Which makes going to a network of people who are a lot like me, less productive.

As it happened though, things played out differently:  a few weeks ago I was in a Clubhouse room related to recruiting, and heard someone speak (Clubhouse is all audio, you cannot see anyone in the app). She spoke passionately, insightfully, and from her profile I saw she had yet to graduate, was interested in recruiting and was passionate about talent. So I sent this DM:

I loved the passion you displayed on Clubhouse earlier, and IF you are looking to go deep in recruiting (big if), let me know. I'm trying to dedicate some of my time to helping groom a few, up-and-coming recruiters. There are too few good ones :) On the other hand if your internship might be the end of your recruiting journey, I def appreciate that, so please don't hesitate to let me know.

We’ve since connected by Zoom, had a fantastic conversation, and are scheduling a follow up. What’s striking about this?  For one, we are not in the same place or even country -- she’s in New York, I’m in Singapore. We did not attend the same university. We haven’t worked for any of the same companies. We’re not even connected to the same people in our networks. What she did do, though, was put herself out there -- she had the courage (not the extroversion, mind you, but the courage!) to raise her hand in a “room” full of speakers. And by articulating in that room and via her online presence what she was interested in, she magnetted in a new and relevant relationship.

So, the journey has been brief. I don't know yet if my foray into writing will lead to my own serendipity. But my take on networking couldn’t be more clear: it isn't overrated, and it isn't going anywhere -- not the good kind. Not the kind where we do that amazing, definingly human thing: connect and collaborate together in the way only humans can connect, to solve problems that only humans can solve.

What about the skills and traits needed to connect and network well? I’m talking about courage, authenticity, self-awareness; vulnerability and curiosity; generosity, thoughtfulness, reciprocity. It turns out that these muscles are still relevant, and they’re as needed as ever, even in a 2021 dominated by the Internet.

So what’s changing? The nature and the how of networking are definitely changing. And that change does demand that we use (or learn) new ways to build meaningful relationships, if we hope to enjoy the compounding leverage that those relationships bring.

For me, this exploration has meant leaning way into the discomfort of putting myself out there. It’s meant challenging the old-school form of networking that I worked hard to learn and hone. It’s meant questioning the very skill that got me here in the first place. But the lesson of the exercise couldn’t be more clear: burn those ships if need be, put that fear into your back pocket for just a bit, lean into that discomfort -- and learn.

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