Whether in context of work or play, we're all somewhat familiar with the idea of "networking." Some see networking as a piece of cake: it involves making connections, building relationships and perhaps eventually leveraging these relationships and interests. But for the more introverted, networking may not only seem unappealing -- but even scary.
Many inexperienced networkers tend to shy away from engaging all together because they take the term to mean asking strangers for favors. In this sense, networking is rightfully seen as inauthentic, tasteless and awkward. But this is a misconception, and an invitation for us to break down the very term "networking" and debunk some of its myths. First, let's ask the basic question: who is in my network? One individual's network consists of all his/her contacts, personal and professional -- from classmates and professors, to friends and family members, to former and current co-workers and supervisors. The list goes on. It is important to realize that we are all apart of others' networks, too -- and it is up to each of us to recognize, own and nurture our connections to others.
Of course, networking does not simply entail passively acknowledging your connections to others. Building your network takes an input of energy and attention. But despite common belief, building your network does not mean being a self-involved sycophant. Many networking opportunities exist -- the simplest, but perhaps most essential, of which is having a conversation! Who would've guessed networking could be as organic as meeting up with someone for a cup of coffee?
You can think of these conversations as informal, but nonetheless helpful, informational interviews -- a real opportunity connect further to someone in a field of interest to you, build your relationship and make an impression. Before your meeting, consider conducting a bit of research into the person and the field in which you are interested. Create a loose, mental agenda for the conversation, remembering to include excellent questions that show you have done your homework (e.g., don't ask questions whose answers are easy to find on a company website). A word to the shy: people love to talk about their experiences. Showing your interest in someone's work for your own purposes is not narcissistic, nor is it a reason to apologize or feel guilty. The necessary posture to adopt here -- and in all facets of life, really -- is owning your intentions, skills, interests and expressing them in an engaging, thoughtful and honest way.
Of course, there is no way to talk about networking without bringing up the ubiquitous presence of social networking, or social media as it is now popularly called. In June 2009, new media expert Clay Shirky gave a TED Talk in which he claimed that today's era marks "the largest increase in expressive capability in human history." In other words, social media facilitates communication and connection building, which is a huge networking asset for us all, but especially the less outgoing among us. Social media tools help us geometrically expand our networks, providing us with good information about various companies and organizations -- sometimes even including specific job opportunities. It is also a way to brand yourself, build credibility and gain exposure without necessarily reaching out to a specific individual. By presenting yourself as someone with valuable connections, who is thoughtfully engaged in his/her online activity (as well as off-line, too!), you can cultivate a career-long network that will serve your interests and those of others as well.
So there you have it: networking is not just for extroverts. The only key is to have a clear reason to connect with someone. No acrobatics necessary.
Remember that the best networkers know how to give and take. Networking is reciprocal -- if you regard someone as a connection, they almost definitely regard you as a connection. Share information and take pleasure in being helpful. In his book Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, Shirky reminds us of the unprecedented opportunity for generosity in today's connected world: "The internet provides everybody with the opportunity to share their thoughts and ideas over the system. Anything can be made and shared and sent to nearly any part of the world." So do yourself a favor and realize the power of generosity and build your network, and know that somebody out there is wishing to make a connection with you. The possibilities are endless.