Having been in the working world for nearly six years, there’s no doubt that I’ve learned a lot, yet still have a lot to learn. That being said, perhaps the single most valuable thing I’ve learned so far is that the ability to network is a skill that can take you farther than any other, not just in work but in life. It’s not always easy, but its value cannot be overstated. Like anything else, networking skills can be improved and strengthened over time. Here are a few ways to speed up the process:
Don’t rely on networking events — Formal networking events can be great on occasion, but in reality, the most valuable type of networking happens in your everyday life. It happens when you meet some awesome Canadians at a music festival in Vegas or a hilarious English guy and his dad at a Starbucks in Davis, Ca., or a couple from your hometown when you’re with your best friend at a random wine bar in Croatia. These are all examples of things that have happened in my life, and trips to new destinations, job interviews and lifelong friends have all stemmed from these interactions. Networking is all about connecting with people who have a shared interest and what better way to do so than by chatting with people who are in the places you’re already planning to be?
Be bold enough to fly solo — Just because you don’t have someone to go to a particular event with doesn’t mean you should skip it altogether. Sure, it sounds scary at first, but saying no simply because no one else says yes means you could end up missing out on something really great. Plus, going by yourself to an event forces you to connect with other attendees in a way that you might not if you were to bring a friend along.
Travel travel travel — Networking is undoubtedly easier for outgoing people, and not every person is as outgoing as the next. However, whether you’re an extrovert or introvert, traveling to new places and experiencing new cultures is in my opinion, the fastest and most enjoyable way to develop your networking skills. Not only does travel open your mind, but it allows you to find meaningful connections with people even when they’re inherently different from you. Staying in hostels during your travels is a great way to meet people who can become your best friends; now whether it’s for the next 24 hours or the rest of your life doesn’t matter— it’s all about the experience. Each experience you have with each different person or group of people makes you that much more open to new experiences in the future, and it’s this type of openness and willingness to try new things that will inevitably make you a stronger networker.
Don’t discount anyone as unimportant— While I’d like to believe this is an obvious one, I know it’s not. We’re all guilty of occasionally playing into the idea of hierarchy and have a tendency to value making connections with some people over others based on title, class, etc., without even realizing how this mentality can inhibit our own growth. Every person we meet has a story to tell and choosing not to listen is a missed opportunity on our part. You never know what information or knowledge may come your way if you take the time to listen. So whether you’re talking to the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or a high school kid on the bus, be engaged, be empathetic and be open minded— you’ll likely be glad you were.
Be a yes person— We can’t say yes to everything, nor should we. We should however, strive for more yes’s than no’s in life because it’s the yes’s that expand our experiences and in turn, expand our network. Maybe it’s an event your coworker invited you to but you’d rather get home to your Netflix show; or maybe it’s a trip to Tahoe with 20 people where you only know the one friend who invited you and it’d be easier to stay home and do brunch with the usual crew. Whatever your hesitations, sometimes it’s best to set those aside and just say yes to the opportunities that present themselves to you. Saying yes means opening doors to new people and new conversations, which is essential for growing your network.
Don’t replace networking IRL with social networking — With so many apps and social networking sites vying for our attention, social networking has become ubiquitous in today’s world. It’s easy to get caught up in the number of likes you get on your latest Instagram or the number of followers you have on Twitter. Everywhere you look people are staring at their phones because when we aren’t with people we know (and often times even when we are) we turn our attention to social media. When it comes to networking, this is the wrong approach. Social networking can be a powerful tool, but it’s one that should supplement the connections you make in real life, not replace them.
In addition to the above, the overall key to being a good networker is simple; always be open to meeting new people. Whether you chat with someone for five minutes in line at the grocery store or for 30 minutes during an informational interview, be kind, be respectful, and be genuine. Most importantly, put the focus on the other person rather than yourself and listen more than you talk. No matter who you meet or where you meet them, you never know what role they may play in your future or if you’ll cross paths again, but you probably will because in the words of Walt Disney, “It’s a small world after all.”