That Whole "Your Network Is Your Net Worth" Cliche

"Networking events" are the bane of my existence.

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“Your network is your net worth.”

This expression has to be the biggest cliché in business, right? The motto of every fraternity’s 5th-year senior with a 2.4 GPA who can’t quite pass his last corporate finance class, but swears that he’s a handshake away from a killer banking job.

I used to hear this phrase (along with its cousin: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know) 24/7 in college, though at the time I didn’t even really understand what “networking” meant. In my head, networking was a post-conference cocktail party where you would slap on a Sharpie’d name tag, snag a Stella Artois from an open bar, and elevator pitch the other guests for two hours. Over the course of the night, you would cross paths with different interesting, successful people, exchange business cards, send them a follow-up email the next day, and BOOM, they’re in your network. The road to success, one handshake at a time.

It was only after attending a few events like this that I quickly became disillusioned with this idea of “networking.”

Last spring, for example, I was in South Beach for one of the biggest conferences in tech and finance, Miami Tech Week. This was the conference to attend, with a lineup of speakers that included unicorn founders, well-known venture capitalists, and thought leaders in the tech space.

After the speaking panels ended on day one, all attendees were invited to a happy hour/afterparty in Brickell. It was here that I discovered an unfortunate truth about “networking events:” They kind of suck.

Most of my conversations at this afterparty went something like this:

What’s up man, I’m Jack!”

“How’s it going, I’m ______”

*insert random small talk for a minute or so*

“So, what do you do?”

“Oh, you know, I have an idea-stage startup that’s about to launch next week. We’re going to tokenize dog food delivery / provide banking solutions to Inuit refugees in South Florida / create synthetic meat from decomposing wood chips. I’m just here to find a more technical cofounder that can help with the Xs and Os.”

In 9/10 of these conversations, I found myself talking to an idea guy. We all know a few idea guys. They’re always one step away from launching that startup or business venture, or they have great “ideas” for how to improve some existing company or process.

The unifying characteristic of all “idea guys” is that they aren’t actually doing anything. They simply talk about things that they will hypothetically do at some point in the future.

And idea guys LOVE networking events because they have a chance to tell anyone who will listen about their great ideas.

I realized that at any given networking event, 1% of the attendees will be incredibly accomplished and swarmed by the masses vying for their attention, and the other 99% will be folks pretending to be incredibly accomplished, hoping no one sees through the facade.

This latter group believes that they are one introduction away from a connection that will change their life, but that’s just not how any of this works. You can’t small talk your way into a valuable network without putting in some work beforehand.

Networking, like, real, valuable networking, happens in one of two ways.

1) You accomplish cool, interesting, and/or extraordinary things, and you develop genuine friendships or relationships with other folks who have accomplished cool, interesting, and/or extraordinary things.

2) You build a genuine friendship or relationship with someone, and you both later go on to accomplish cool, interesting, and/or extraordinary things.

Notice the two commonalities? You have to do something interesting and build genuine relationships.

I think I have a pretty valuable network for a 26-year-old dude living in the Big Apple who hasn’t had a “real job” in nearly two years, but I didn’t build my network by attending a consortium of happy hours at various 5/10 watering holes around Manhattan on Thursday afternoons (though I’m certainly not opposed).

I met the most valuable (however you define that) members of my network through this blog. I have written 200+ blog posts and shared my stuff incessantly, and over time, these efforts helped connect me with people who appreciated my work. Some of these individuals are writers and podcast hosts, creators like myself. Others are company founders, hedge fund managers, and venture capitalists. But I didn’t meet any of these people over cheeseburger sliders and plastic cups filled with Chardonnay. We connected through mutual respect for each others’ work.

Down the road, my professional network will include several of my current classmates who will lead successful careers as company founders, investors, bankers, C-Suite executives, and who knows what else. But that network won’t be rooted in discussions about entrepreneurial goals during an orientation icebreaker challenge or conversations of career ambitions while eating finger foods in Geffen Hall. It will be rooted in relationships formed while playing rugby and poker, traveling to Japan and the Dominican Republic, and spending free time exploring our new home of New York City.

Yes, a strong network is a valuable resource, but you don’t build this network through elevator pitches and white-collar speed dating sessions. You build it through nurturing authentic connections with high-value people. And the best way to establish these high-value connections is by being a high-value person yourself.

If you focus more on doing interesting stuff and less on meeting interesting people, the latter tends to take care of itself.

- Jack

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  • Michael Batnick wrote a great piece on the role that “luck” plays in our lives.

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