I was completely wrong about most of the things I was certain of when I was 23. Like wanting to be a novelist. And the (train wreck of a) guy I thought I'd wind up marrying.
More than anything, though, I believed professional success was all about merit and hard work. Here's a really important lesson: It's not.
Over the past ten years, I've built a career on relationships, and I've come to embrace that maximizing your connections isn't nepotism -- it's efficiency. Chances are, the companies and organizations you want to work with (and the people you want to work for) are stretched too thin to sift through an inbox full of emails from untested candidates. The screens they use aren't GMAT scores or GPAs. They rely on referrals from the people they trust the most.
These connections don't guarantee anything... Except that you'll get considered. That's no small thing when, for instance, half the English majors in New York are applying for a job at Random House. Or every Democratic political operative is trying to get hired to the presumptive governor's campaign. Or 1,700 tech start-ups are vying for 11 spots in the TechStars program.
Building an influential network is not rocket science, but it takes a fair amount of grunt work and a little insight into what motivates people.
First, trying to meet someone "quality" at a networking event is the equivalent of going to a bar to find a boyfriend. They're both mostly full of people you don't want or need to meet. Use your friends to get to know interesting people.
When you do find yourself at conferences and events (which can be great!), have a clear plan. Know specifically who you want to connect with and find a photo of them in advance. Seth Andrew, founder of Democracy Prep Public Schools, has a reputation for "winning" conferences by driving name recognition. He instructs his staff to always "ask an excellent question" when attending panels, prefaced by a succinct introduction of who you are and what you do.
Another thing: I promise there are people in your social circle right now who will be able to do really meaningful things for you professionally within 10 years. Some, within five years. The very un-fancy summer camp in Rhode Island that I went to as a kid has been almost as rich a source of connections as Columbia Business School. Seth Andrew? We went to Camp Fuller together.
Be a connector. The first thing you should ask yourself when meeting someone new is, "what can I do for this person?" It sounds a little self-helpy, but everyone needs something: a dentist, a lunch suggestion, help fixing their WiFi network. Be the person who can make those introductions, and these connections will pay dividends to you for decades.
The only way to do that effectively is to have your own database. You can't store all of this stuff in your brain. (You should be using your brain to do important stuff, not trying to remember people's kids' names or where they went to college.) Being systematic about your network doesn't mean the relationships are any less authentic. Send thank you notes, within 24 hours, and make them specific ("____ resonated with me because _____"). Send a holiday card at a minimum; better yet, send a personal note at least once a year in addition.
Keep track of it all by investing in a CRM, which may sound excessive, but an address book, Excel sheet, or Google doc isn't going to cut it for very long -- and you might as well do it right the first time around. I use Salesforce, which costs $5 a month for the most basic solution, and I can sort contacts by how I met them, when I last connected with them, and what categories into which they fit.
I've taken a lot of different paths in my career so far: publishing, politics, Wall Street, and the nonprofit world. I landed each of those roles through a connection, and I succeeded in them because I leveraged my connections to do my job. It's also how we've built weeSpring, which -- unironically -- is all about trusted advice from people you know. Yesterday, I hired a staffer who is dating my former assistant's childhood friend. Our lead engineer worked with my husband (who, by the way, I met on a political campaign), and our community manager is a college friend of his.
It's all connections. Make the best of yours.