This is the third of sixteen parts of a “book club” reading and discussion of Keith Ferrazzi and Tahl Raz’s Never Eat Alone, where this book on building a lifelong community of colleagues, contacts, friends, and mentors is teased apart and looked at in detail. This entry covers the fifth and sixth chapters, “The Genius of Audacity” and “The Networking Jerk,” which appear on pages 48 through 66.
The idea of interacting with people, particularly people I don’t know well, makes me uneasy. My natural disposition is to just get quiet in a room full of people and just wait for people I know well or wait for the situation to be over.
It took me a long time to learn that such behavior is a fast route to failure.
It takes a lot of courage for me to do anything else. I have to focus on it carefully. I have to psychologically prepare myself. But, every time I do it, I find myself building relationships. And I also find that it becomes just a little bit easier to do it.
On page 49, Ferrazzi tells an awesome story about a childhood experience centered around poverty and audacity:
My father simply couldn’t be embarrassed when it came to fulfilling his family’s needs. I remember once we were driving down the road to our home when Dad spotted a broken Big Wheel tricycle in someone’s trash. He stopped the car, picked it up, and knocked on the door of the home where the discarded toy lay waiting to be picked up.
“I spotted this Big Wheel in your trash,” he told the owner. “Do you mind if I take it? I think I can fix it. It would make me feel wonderful to give my son something like this.”
What guts! Can you imagine such a proud, working-class guy approaching that woman and, essentially, admitting he’s so poor that he’d like to have her garbage?
Oh, but that’s not the half of it. Imagine how that woman felt, having been given an opportunity to give such a gift to another person. It surely made her day.
“Of course,” she gushed, explaining that her children were grown and that years had passed since the toy had been used. “You’re welcome to the bicycle I have, too. It’s nice enough that I just couldn’t throw it away…”
So we drove on. I had a “new” Big Wheel to ride on and a bike to grow into. She had a smile and a fluttering heart that only benevolence breeds. And Dad had taught me that there is genius, even kindness, in being bold.
I couldn’t help but think of my own childhood when I read this story. I grew up poor, probably at a level similar to Ferrazzi. I saw my father do similar things, picking through other’s junk to find things that were usable for us.
For a long time in my life, I saw it as sad. I saw it as something I should be trying to escape from. I didn’t want to be a parent that scavenged through junk for stuff for my kids.
Now, I see it as smart and resourceful and audacious and courageous. I’m perfectly happy to do that sort of digging if there’s something worth digging for.
What changed? I think the biggest switch was actually courage. It takes courage to do the unexpected.
Find a Role Model
Often, your friends are quite a bit like you – and that can be a disadvantage. On page 52:
We’re predisposed to seek out people like us – shy people tend to congregate with other shy people, and outgoing people congregate with outgoing people – because they unconsciously affirm our own behaviors. But everyone knows that one person in their group of friends and associates who seems to engage others with little or no fear. If you’re not yet ready to take the big leap of addressing new people on your own, let these people help you and show you the way. Take them with you, when appropriate, to social outings and observe their behaviors. Pay attention to their actions. Over time, you’ll adopt some of their techniques. Slowly, you’ll build up the courage to reach out by yourself.
A while ago, I used to think that I had little to say to other people. I didn’t think I had much in common with them, that my interests were very different.
What I found, actually, is that my lifetime history of reading almost everything I could get my hands on really paid off. I can converse about anything, allowing others to more or less choose the topic. I can talk about sports, art, popular culture, politics, or anything else that comes up. I might not be an expert, but I know something about it.
Sure, I have key interests, things that really light my fire. But when I realized that I could just hone in on what interests other people and at least be able to follow the conversation, it made it much easier to get to know people at least a little. Even better, I often would find that I had more in common with people than I would have thought, because everyone has a diversity of interests (even if they don’t come out at first).
This makes it easier for me to approach people that I don’t know. I usually just go up to them and try to figure out (as quickly as I can) something they’re passionate about. If I don’t know, I ask them to tell me about their hobbies and how they spend their free time, then I just hone in on the most promising thing. This almost always works.
A Modest Goal
How can you get started building relationships with others? On page 53, Ferrazzi suggests making it a goal:
Set a goal for yourself of initiating a meeting with one new person a week. It doesn’t matter where or with whom. Introduce yourself to someone on the bus. Slide up next to someone at the bar and say hello. Hang out at the company water cooler and force yourself to talk to a fellow employee you’ve never spoken with. You’ll find that it gets easier and easier with practice. Best of all, you’ll get comfortable with the idea of rejection. With that perspective, even failure becomes a step forward. Embrace it as learning. As the playwright Samuel Beckett wrote, “Fail, fail again. Fail better.”
This is a great habit to get into, actually. If you make it your goal to talk to someone new every week – or, even better, every day – you’re forcing yourself to at least attempt to build new relationships.
Sure, some of these will amount to nothing. I’d argue that most will amount to nothing. But that’s fine. Even if they don’t, you’ve become a little bit more comfortable approaching people and striking up conversations.
And, every once in a while, you’ll connect really well with someone, enough to exchange contact info with them. Those connections you do make will make the courage to try and the failures well worth it.
The Networking Jerk
On page 56, Ferrazzi looks at the negative impression that networking often has:
He is the man or she is the woman with a martini in one hand, business cards in the other, and a prerehearsed elevator pitch always at the ready. He or she is a schmooze artist, eyes darting at every event in a constant search for a bigger fish to fry. He or she is the insincere, ruthlessly ambitious glad-handler you don’t want to become.
The networking jerk is the image that many people have when they hear the word “networking.” But in my book, this breed of hyper-Rolodex-builder and card-counte fails to grasp the nuance of authentic connecting. Their shtick doesn’t work because they don’t know the first thing about creating meaningful relationships.
When Never Eat Alone was first recommended to me, I had an extremely negative view of networking. I had attended several meetings and conferences where a handful of people spent all their time “networking,” which meant that they just went from person to person, made pointless small talk, pushed their business cards into your hand, slapped you on the back, and moved on.
Needless to say, I wasn’t impressed. Those people came off as complete losers and the entire idea of “networking” left a really bad taste in my mouth. I pretty much resolved, right then and there, to never “network.”
Though my opinion on the behavior that those people exhibited hasn’t changed at all, over time, I have started to “network” – just not in their way.
For example, if I go to a meeting, I make a conscious effort to have as many worthwhile conversations as possible. I talk to speakers if I’m interested in what they’re talking about. I talk to people who are asking interesting questions.
Sometimes, I click with the people I talk to – sometimes I don’t. When I do click, I make sure to exchange contact info with them and often I’ll try to have dinner or lunch or breakfast or a drink with them during the conference later on. Then, when I get home, I follow up by Googling them, finding out more about them, and continuing the conversation over email.
The last thing I want to do is be the kind of sleazebag that goes from person to person, jamming unwanted business cards in their hands.
So how can you avoid being that kind of schmoozer that no one likes? Ferrazzi’s best tip is on page 58:
Have something to say, and say it with passion. Make sure you have something to offer when you speak, and offer it with sincerity. Most people haven’t figured out that it’s better to spend more time with fewer people at a one-hour get together and have one or two meaningful dialogues than engage in the wandering-eye routine and lose the respect of most of the people you meet.
If you have nothing to say to a person, don’t say anything at all. Don’t even bother unless you have something of value to contribute or to ask.
I think this is where most of the networking “sliminess” comes from. People attempt to make small talk out of the blue, just walking up to you and saying words that really have no value in an effort to just get a business card shoved in your hand.
That’s terrible. It’s not useful to either person. The person schmoozing wastes time and a business card. The person schmoozed wastes time and has to throw away a business card.
Instead, just focus on talking to people to which you actually have something useful to say. Have a question in mind that you’d actually like to know the answer to, or have some sort of information in mind that the person will obviously find useful. Without that, what are you doing, really? Just schmoozing.
On page 60, Ferrazzi points out something really bad that people do all the time online:
Nothing comes off as less sincere than receiving a mass e-mail addressed to a long list of recipients. Reaching out to others is not a numbers game. Your goal is to make genuine connections with people you can count on.
Unless I’ve opted in for that email (like a mailing list I’ve chosen myself to sign up for), I find mass emails and auto-responses to be a massive turnoff. Nothing says “you’re just another entry in my address book” like an automatic email or an email with fifty recipients.
If you have a message you want to communicate to a lot of people, use a service where people have chosen to follow you, like Twitter or Facebook, or write individual emails. Otherwise, you’re just sending them spam, and most of the time, they won’t like it.
Even worse are automatic responses, like when I send an email to someone and I get an automatic response telling me that they may or may not actually respond to my email. You know, I expect that already. All your auto-reply did is waste my time and tell me that you’re likely far too busy to bother with me.
On Saturday, we’ll tackle the seventh and eighth chapters – “Do Your Homework” and “Take Names.”