You’re not building a career. You’re building a network.

I started my career at age 23. It’s 40 years later. And I’ve finally figured out what I was doing all that time.

Sure I was accumulating skills and experiences and figuring out ways to get well paid for doing things I was good at. But that’s just work.

As it turned out, the most valuable thing was the people I met.

People who care are worth their weight in platinum

I was never any good at “networking.” Put me in a cocktail party and I instantly fail at schmoozing 101, and want to leave immediately. The shallow relationships you form at events like that aren’t worth a whole lot anyway.

But in the course of that long career, I met and worked with over a thousand people. A lot of that, but not all of it, was from 20 years of colleagues and clients at Forrester Research. But it also includes eight years as a freelancer helping authors with books and corporations with writing.

Also in that network now are people who read my blog and people who I interact with on social media, especially in the author groups I participate in.

What’s this worth? Well, it’s pretty helpful when you need to solve problems like these for clients and friends.

  • Who’s a good copy editor for my book?
  • Do you know any designers who can create complex illustrations?
  • I just got laid off. Who would hire somebody like me?
  • Do you know anybody in the green tech space?
  • Who’s an expert on freelancers and finance?
  • How do I set myself up to create and share videos about my expertise?
  • Should I record my own audiobook? How would I do that?
  • Who is really knowledgeable about survey research?
  • Do you know the people who select op-eds at any major newspapers?
  • Who does a good job on book publicity in my price range?
  • What hybrid publishers are reputable?

Those are all real questions I answered with help from people in my network.

I’m working with nonfiction authors right now to get endorsements for my next book. And a weird thing is happening. They’re nearly all saying yes. It’s thrilling and fun to experience.

Curating people

To be honest, I’m terrible, truly awful, at curating relationships. I forget people’s names all the time. I forget details of how we worked together. I forget people’s faces immediately and fail to recognize them when I see them a second time. I suck at this.

I build my network, not because I’m good at networks, but in spite of the fact that I am bad at networks.

But looking back on all those years, there are a few practices that made a difference.

First, listen to people. Understand them. And that’s regardless of who they are, because those interns and entry level people are eventually going to end up running things. Listening goes a long way. (I was bad at that, too, but I got better over time.)

Second, connect with people on LinkedIn. Then you’ll be able to look them up again, even if your memory is bad, and see what they’re doing now. Check that before you reach out again.

Third, if people ask for your help and you possibly can, help them. I love sharing information with people and fortunately, my schedule allows me to do so. A lot of those authors who are helping me with blurbs now were people who I helped on social media or by phone, just because I knew I could provide a little knowledge they needed.

Fourth, don’t think of social media as just a waste of time. It’s a way to build relationships. A lot of people I now count on know me mostly because of my social media presence and the time I’ve spent there.

And finally, just be nice. I have no idea how many people I intentionally or accidentally abused in all my years of work, but there were a few. But as it turns out, there are a lot more people who, if you ask about me, would say things like “He’s basically a good guy, he’s smart, he knows his stuff, he helped me,” or things like that. I didn’t do that on purpose; it’s just the residue of the work we did together. But if your values include collaboration, competence, integrity, and pride in what you produce, that tends to leave a good impression behind — and it’s enough to make up for the occasional wrongly framed remark.

I didn’t set out to create those relationships. But there they are, ready when I need them. And I’m very, very grateful.

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  1. I’m forever grateful that I ended up in your networking orbit, Josh! Only it doesn’t feel like networking, it feels like kind and compassionate people looking out for each other. I know that sounds so trite, but I honestly believe it. I’ve been trying for a while to get better at networking, because it’s gotten a bit lonely the older I get. I’ve created an Arlington ladies dinner club, where I invite colleagues who live close by for a monthly dinner. It’s an open-ended invite, and people are free to come or not at any given time. Sure, we vent about work over dinner, but we also talk about life, kids, our futures.

    That one act has made me much more comfortable with accepting a lunch invite from an old colleague or a Zoom call from someone else. And this has led to great things, including the wonderful opportunity to copyedit your book (which is great, by the way — entertaining, informative, and funny!).

  2. Good post about the value and outcome of networking.

    Networking is a “pay-it-forward” process. Get to know people — what they do, what they care about what they’re good at — and share the same about yourself. People hire and work for/with people they like and know.

  3. I wish I would have been more consciously deliberate about this during my working career. I, too, am crappy at building and nurturing relationships, but I have nevertheless built a pretty big network by virtue of my work and titles and participation in many external professional groups and activities. A lot of my network is made up of “loose” connections, but the ones that are solid really count and really matter and have really helped me and people I’ve recommended. I’ve gotten people jobs, promotions, and solid connections that have served them well. (I’ve recently been pleased, proud, and honored when former colleagues still call on me for advice and counsel even after I retired and have nothing solid to offer them other than an opinion and a perspective born of experience.) I think the saving grace for me was being an active connector. When I hear of someone in need, I usually know someone else who could fill that need, or is an expert on the topic at hand, and I take joy in making the connection and seeing two people benefit from it.

  4. Tip #2 is a particularly good one. Years ago, I remember having a team member of mine reach out to you because of the work you did on Groundswell because I wanted to have you on my podcast. Sadly, we’d neglected to see you were no longer doing the same kind of work. Had we taken that extra time to do that, we might’ve had a great conversation and forgotten each others faces by now.

    This is a great post and one I think more folx coming out of college would do well to read.