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11 Feb

Premature networking is bad for your health.

Before I start today’s piece, I want to share how I got my first exit.

My first business, Learning Outcomes, was focused on designing outcomes that schools could incorporate. A sales associate I had hired back then had landed us a meeting with the Goa Government. We were to present our work to the jury and four to five other startups at a networking event. I was 25 then and had considered shutting shop because we weren’t getting far with the idea. Although, to my surprise, a business in the same domain was impressed by our work and offered us a cash exit.

This took place in 2015.

I could’ve tried to raise funding for our idea back then, but being valued for what we bought to the table felt like an excellent reinforcement to focus on the work.  All else was a by-product of doing the work. There was no networking, at least not as frequently as today.

But things have changed since. In most of my interactions with early-stage working professionals, I notice an unhealthy inebriation with the idea of ‘networking.’ The done-to-death adage of “your network is your net worth” has gripped professionals yet to establish themselves and their work thoroughly. And this could have trickled down from the constant content created around professional growth.

And other than promoting networking as a must-do, we are subjecting people to show up for such events by telling them it will be life-changing. We are forcing serendipity to occur.

But to be honest, this promise can’t be further from the truth. We are simply baiting people to attend networking events without knowing what networking is. Unless you have work to show for and contribute tangibly to a network, all networking is a party. It is fun and games, even though you might be doing it professionally. There is little sincerity in that approach.

A typical networking event will be structured around a shared industry experience or functional expertise in a domain. As an early working professional, you might have done some work, but you are hoping this networking event will drastically change something for you.

Well, in all likelihood, it won’t.

It will more often than not be a few hours of banter, exchanging names and explanations of what work you do currently. It might be followed by an expert-speak session or panel where you could ask some questions. And just like that, you come back spending precious time without wondering if it significantly changes something about your work.

Please remember that even if you manage to bag an interview at a networking event, your work will decide if you finally get the job. Focus on the work that you’re doing and the skills that you’re nurturing in the early stages of your career.

Buying into the promise of quick turnaround at professional networking events removes you from the task at hand — practising your tangible skills. For instance, look at what’s happening in the two screenshots —

Both individuals have created work and shared it publicly with the design head at CRED, garnering organic praise for their work and getting responses from the people who matter.

Imagine if both of them went to networking events instead, hoping to land the job at CRED. They wouldn’t be noticed.

And I think something needs to be learnt from how artists and designers approach their job hunt — create work that helps you get noticed. In the initial years of your career, only your work can speak. You’re better off making that happen. There is no other way to understand your ability or taste.

In fact, for the first seven to eight years of your professional life, the work you do is the only thing that matters, even in a network. Because without work, you’re not adding much value to the network you wish to be a part of.

You might think that meeting and interacting with a few exciting people will help you learn a lot and change your life, but that exchange is usually the kind where you’re the taker. You are there to glean insights from other people without investing much thought or effort. And networking isn’t helpful when everyone is there with a taker’s mindset. Then it is usually a group of people who meet and do small-talk.

Wouldn’t you instead use that time differently?

Another unhealthy obsession of early-stage professionals is the need to find mentors. I often get this when I ask people how they’d like to grow professionally.

Again, my question is — Have you done work that a mentor can help you improve?

If you are simply looking for free handouts on how to lead your professional life, let me tell you that you’re signing up for disappointment.

Because in the real world, an expert’s time is valuable because of the work they did to become so. You must realise that an expert doesn’t have a real incentive to help you figure out things from scratch if you haven't already done any legwork. A genuine mentor will not make claims of wanting to help you if they don't see you putting in any work. And if somebody does that, you should doubt any mentorship they provide.

Instead of looking for mentors, you can use that time to hone your skills at work.

But, finally you will have to decide what matters to you more — doing the work or talking about doing the work.

In case it's the latter, attend as many networking events as you would like with the hope of churning something out of serendipity.

And while we are discussing mentors, might I share a little secret —  if a mentor believes you are doing interesting work, they will come to find you. It might not happen all the time, but this is the ideal of work you should aspire to produce.  The kind of work that makes an expert reach out to you.

Essentially, the only point I want to drive home today is — please do the work; everything else is noise. There is no shortcut to professional advancement.

Attending innumerable networking events or sending Linkedin requests seeking mentorship without having any work output only signals insincerity. And insincerity is a bad start if you’re looking for transformation.

But to be fair, it makes sense at the later stages of your career when you have settled as a professional. At that stage, you have the relevant connections and skills that can be exchanged within a network you wish to be a part of. You can add value to the network, not noise. But it could sometimes take more than a decade to arrive at this stage.

Till then, do the work. And the next time you think that a networking event might be helpful, use this tweet as a reminder of why that isn’t the best idea —

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