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Building a network, for introverts!

In this era of job hunting, we hear it all the time: “To find a job, it’s all about networking!” Indeed, studies have shown that up to 85% of all jobs are filled via networks, although “networking” seems mysterious and insurmountable when you’re just starting out. And especially when you’re not a naturally gregarious extrovert!

By some miracle, I seem to have more or less figured out this whole “networking” thing, as an extreme introvert who also had social anxiety. Even now, my preferred downtime involves vegging out and talking with zero people. (Lemme tell you, it’s very nice for an extreme introvert to have an introverted spouse!) My healthy rate for social outings, where I’d be directly engaging with people for hours, is about one every two weeks. It took me years to reconcile that fact about myself. My time at college was mostly spent fretting about not wanting to go to parties and not meeting people and what was wrong with me???

Don’t get me wrong, I like learning about people. I even like being around them, such as working in a coffee shop. I’ve been participating in online message boards since I was 13. I just…don’t like physically participating in social things very often.

If you told high school or college me that I’d be focusing on my network for a job search, I would have belly-laughed at you. When and where would I have gotten a network?

Networking opens doors and creates community

So I just started a new job, moving from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Here are the stats of that job search:

  • 2 job applications
  • 1 interview
  • 1 offer

I KNOW! Even I’m sitting here going, “Whaaaat? How the heck did that happen??”

Here’s the thing: Yes, I did happen to be unusually qualified for the job. Whatever they needed, I’d already acquired those skills (and more!) in my previous gig. My entire team could vouch for the quality of my work. The results spoke for themselves.

But also, multiple people referred me to that position.

By the time I applied, the manager had already heard my name from people he trusted. The first thing he said when we sat down for the interview was, “Well, you certainly know the right people!”

So what happened? How the heck did I get here, from feeling guilty that I wasn’t social enough, holing myself up with my non-social hobbies?

First, I unlearned my social anxiety.

Unlearning my social anxiety

This doesn’t mean all social anxiety can be unlearned. In my case, I was taught to be socially anxious by my parents when I was a kid, who noted that I had a stutter and was emotionally sensitive. They wanted me not to say certain things, not do certain things, and not to stutter, in case people thought I was lying. They were trying to protect me, as parents are wont to do, but it turns out, trying not to stutter does not actually help you stop stuttering. And worrying about the things you shouldn’t do doesn’t help with making friends either. Figures.

However, I’m lucky to have a cooperative brain. I am extremely level-headed, even in stressful times. For some folks, their brain chemicals need some tweaking to tamp down the mental noise, with talk therapy and/or medication. Do what you need to do to get to a point where you can reason with your brain, because there will be some reasoning necessary when you have social anxiety!

I’m also blessed to have a scientific mind, which I use to observe and test hypotheses, even social ones. As I grew up out of middle school idiocy (on my part and other kids’ parts), I simply observed that there were no long-term ramifications to my social awkwardness. Maybe a chuckle or two at the time, but in my experience, minor gossip is easily brushed off by others if you honestly care about other people and if your intentions are kind.

There are two big ideas that helped me unlearn my social anxiety:

1. People are usually gauging your reaction to yourself.

My stutter hasn’t gone away fully, but people seem to be reacting to it better. I don’t think it’s the stutter itself, but how I’m reacting to it. I’m not ashamed of it anymore. I trust that people are listening to my words and ideas, instead of how fluently those words are said. If I treat the stutter like it’s totally normal, people treat it like it’s totally normal.

Human beings are social animals, and we pick up emotional cues from others. It’s an observable biological effect! So instead of judging your actions as independent and absolute, people are actually gauging your reactions to your own actions. If someone is flustered or embarrassed, people around them are going to feel anxious and awkward too. If someone laughs off a mistake, people instantly feel more comfortable. If it’s not a big deal to someone who made the mistake, it must not be a big deal!

2. 80% of how someone treats you is actually a reflection of them.

Everyone is carrying a bag of rocks you can’t see. How they take action on anything depends on what they’re carrying. In order to see who someone truly is, you have to see what they do in a stressful situation. Doesn’t have to be big, it can be as minor as missing a turn while driving. It’s amazing, the range of reactions you get!

Usually when someone has treated me curtly, I’ve discovered later that they’d had a bad day – their commute was awful, work has been grueling, their kid has been sick. Some people are better at masking it than others. It would be nice if everyone learned how to regulate their emotions, but you can only control – and thus depend on – yourself.

Or if they’re curt to everyone all the time, well, obviously it’s not you, they’re just jerks! Very little of it actually is about you specifically.

You only have to ask yourself two questions:

  1. Are you considering other people?
  2. Are your intentions kind?

If so, you’re on the right track! If someone wants to brush you off or treat you rudely, then that’s on them, not you.

An aside: There’s an entire system that focuses on this kind of thinking, called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Turns out I’d been doing a light form of it on myself since I was a child and didn’t know it!


Building a network

With that foundation, here’s how I built from there, layer by layer:

  1. Be generous
  2. Strive for excellence
  3. Be interested, not interesting
  4. Volunteer
  5. Get a wing-mate
  6. Practice, practice, practice!

1. Be generous

Despite common usage (including in this piece), I actually don’t like to call it “networking,” because that implies that it’s all about me schmoozing about. It’s not like that at all for me – I’m really helping to build a community. And in order to do that, you have to believe that the world is collaborative. We get ahead by building each other up, not by stepping on others. Nobody wants to help out someone who just takes. Generosity begets more generosity.

Being generous means sharing ideas you’re thinking about, sharing lessons you’ve learned, and having general conversations too, if people invite them. That’s why we’re meeting people in the first place, really – to share with each other. Being generous also includes using your time, patience, ability to listen, and just plain old “showing up.”

There are wonderful things that we introverts have now that we didn’t have before, like online communities. You don’t have to rack up physical event counts to spread generosity anymore! I’ve made some good online friends on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and especially Designer Hangout on Slack.

I volunteered to moderate the enterprise channel on Designer Hangout, which I really had no business doing at the time, what with my one year of UX experience. But the enterprise space is something that I’m endlessly interested in, with its wicked problems and potential impact. And I wanted an excuse to ask questions, in the guise of promoting discussion! It didn’t matter to veterans like Dave Malouf or Jared Spool that a newbie like me was making sure everyone was playing nicely. (Unsurprisingly, the enterprise channel is full of people who play nicely! It’s a pretty easy gig.)

Sharing with others automatically makes you more visible to the community, which is never a bad thing! The more people know you, or know of you, the less work you’ll have to do in meeting them.

2. Strive for excellence

Here’s what I’ve found: Nobody cares how awkward you are, if you’re helpful and effective. They’d be idiots otherwise! And it doesn’t matter how many people you know, if you’re lazy, a chronic flake, or have a bad attitude. In fact, being any of those means you’d be undoing all of your social efforts. Your connections are trusting you with their own reputation, every time they refer you. And if word gets back that you’re not dependable, they’re less likely to help you out. They might even tell their friends. It’s a small world out there!

For introverts, always striving for excellence is an important point, especially if you feel pressured to do ALL THE THINGS. We have limited energy to go around – believe me, I know! Acknowledge the fact that you don’t have the energy to do everything. And in this case, if you can’t do it well, it’s better to save your energy for something more worthwhile.

If you’re not learning stuff or meeting cool people, it’s totally okay to say no. In fact, it’s better if you do say no, so it feels less of a slog doing things you’re not getting anything out of.

Plus, first impressions count. If you continually show up at community events, online or offline, with an air of “I’m in a bad mood, I hate everything,” then that is what you’ll be known for. Then nobody wants to hang out with you, which is a problem with the whole networking thing. 😉 Take a break, gather your wits, and be ready to engage people when you’re in the right headspace for it.

Whatever you do, give it the best you’ve got. Then when eyes are on you or an opportunity comes your way, people will know that you’re an eager, thorough, hardworking person. Not bad characteristics to be known for!

3. Be interested, not interesting

This will make the biggest difference in your networking experience, if you’re new. Many newbies believe they have to do something impressive in order to get the attention of more experienced folks. That they’d have to have paid their dues at a renowned company or have an awesome resume. Not so!

People like people who get excited about similar things. That’s all. And another thing that people like to do, is talk about what gets them excited. It doesn’t even have to be about work. It could be about food, or glasses, or shoes, or knitting – all of which has happened to me more than once!

If there’s no clear opening, I usually start out with “What brings you here?” or “What do you think of the event so far?” Then I start trying to understand their context. How did they get to where they are, physically or mentally? What sort of challenges are they facing? If they start talking freely about it, ask for more details! I’ve gotten people to engage fairly quickly with that simple tip, because I really am genuinely interested, and I’m trying to understand. (The book Humble Inquiry goes into more depth about how listening builds relationships!)

Seeking to understand someone’s context translates as caring about them, as a person. And all we want is to find people who are excited about the same things we are. The trick then, is find out what they’re passionate about, as quickly as possible.

Contrary to a lot of networking tips I’ve seen, I usually find it difficult to avoid shop talk at industry events. If you want to approach a speaker after a talk, well, shop talk is all you have to work with. But no matter the subject you have in common, be passionate about it!

 

For those who still harbor imposter syndrome at events:

I feel you, and I have a story about how I science-minded my way out of it, at least when meeting people at events. There was one time at a conference where I came up and said “Hi, how’s it going?” to an industry expert (who is generally familiar with what I’m about, as far as I know) at lunch. He then proceeded to introduce me to the rest of the table, talking about the “great work” I’d been doing at the City of LA, which honestly gripped me with terror for a few seconds. My exact thought process was, “You don’t know if I’ve been doing great work, you haven’t seen it! It could be total crap!”

Luckily, I held my composure long enough to accept the compliment as it was without sabotaging myself (thanks Marcella for kicking my butt about that – more about wing-mates later), and to realize an Important Thing: He didn’t have to see my UX deliverables to come to the conclusion that I must be doing great work. He knows I’ve been attending events, he’s seen me converse about UX and ask questions at a certain level. At that point, it doesn’t matter how many years of experience you have, it’s how you think that’s most important. My work will be great because of what I’m considering about it.

If you’re excited about something, you’ll automatically push yourself to learn as much as you can. It’s enough that you’re there talking to more experienced folks about what gets them going. In industries where networking is important, that implies you know that learning from other people, not just books or school curriculum, is important. Enthusiasm and an eagerness to learn counts for A LOT. It’s probably the most important thing, judging by how kindly I’ve been treated as a relative newbie meeting more knowledgeable folks.

Remember, everyone has felt like you at some point. Even the experts of today were newbies once, and still can have imposter syndrome themselves!

4. Volunteer

As an introvert, I still find it difficult to just walk up to strangers at happy hour events and introduce myself. I’m expected to stand around and…just meet people? Spontaneously? What?

I find it much easier to meet new people if we’re all working on something together, even if it’s as straightforward as setting up an event. Commenting on the work being done is a “gimme” icebreaker, for sure!

As a bonus, volunteering is a chance to hobnob with industry elites, while showing them what a smart, hard worker you are. (Ask any of the UXPALA directors or the IA Summit 2017 co-chairs about me!) Leaders want to work with people like them, who have that “take charge” mentality. I know folks who have gotten jobs after volunteering at events and meeting the organizers, who happened to be hiring for matching skills. You just never know!

On top of all that, you also get free admission to events! It’s a win/win/win!

5. Get a wing-mate

As you volunteer more, you’ll eventually catch the eye of someone with a lot of influence. This person can be your wing-mate, who can introduce you to lots more people. So you don’t have to do it all on your own! Yay!

Plus, since they have more experience than you, they can tell you the ins and outs of how the industry works, and how to position yourself in that context. (Which definitely includes how not to put your foot in your mouth!) That will set you up for bigger and better things, faster.

My main wing-mate is Marcella Missirian, President of UXPALA, who’s also my biggest UX cheerleader. She introduces me to everyone she knows, with adulation that I’m still not sure I deserve. But then that just goes back to tip #2. I work harder to be the person she sees me as. 🙂

I don’t think of it as “faking it ‘til you make it,” since people do have to see something in you to bother pushing you so hard. Sure, you may feel like a faker, but how you see yourself may not be how the external world sees you. Again, it’s about engaging your scientific mind and observing, instead of acting on assumptions. Especially if those assumptions are about yourself!

A note on the mentorship thing: I have a number of experienced folks I feel comfortable asking questions of, and I consider them all my mentors. (Designer Hangout is great for this, especially for multiple industries!) But I’ve never asked someone, “Will you be my mentor?” Still wondering how to do that without feeling ridiculous!

6. Practice, practice, practice!

Yup, the old adage is still true! Putting yourself out there will not necessarily come easily, especially if you’re not used to it.

A huge obstacle is getting over the fear of looking foolish and being judged. I’m still working on this, and part of my “training” (yes, I consider it training) is Toastmasters. I have had utterly awful speeches before, total train wrecks where my stutter settles on me like an intractable cloud of smog. But you know what? I survive every single one. It gets easier, and then I feel okay with putting myself out there a little more each time.

One thing I did learn from Toastmasters, is that you can actually feed off that feeling of being foolish. That translates as being excited and animated to an outside observer. The more serious and “professional” you try to be, the more stiff and antisocial you come off. Then, once again, nobody will want to hang out with you! That’s also partly why improv techniques are being adopted for business environments.

One specific item that took practice for me, was formulating questions when chatting with people I’d just met. When I started, I would completely blank out, paralyzed with fear that I would be judged on the quality of the questions I’d ask next. It got a lot easier after I discovered tip #3, that the most important thing is being interested. Though, getting my brain to actually come up with contextual questions on the fly still took practice!

Figure out which part of meeting new people you’re having trouble with, and take the effort to think through those aspects.

Give it some time

Like all big projects, things will likely move slowly. Trust and community, that takes time. You can’t expedite genuine human relationships.

This journey has been a good 4 years in the making for me. I discovered UX, then I started showing up to Meetups and other events. I started tweeting about them because I was genuinely excited to learn from others and share what I’d learned. Marcella pinged me to do social media for UXPALA, which opened more opportunities to meet others, mentor, do some public speaking, and keep practicing.

Things seemed to snowball this past year, when completely unexpected opportunities materialized. Co-teaching a class, being in charge of social media for IA Summit, and well, being referred by multiple people for one job, haha.

The job referral involved all the tips I outlined above, with the following factors:

  • Sharing my knowledge about working in civic tech, with a blog post.
  • Two Designer Hangout friends referring me to a job posting that was literally perfect for me.
  • The blog post spontaneously leading to meeting a few 3rd-level contacts, who knew the manager for the exact job I was looking at.

A lot of luck, yes, but think of “luck” as “being ready when the opportunities come.” If you’re not ready or if there aren’t any opportunities, then you won’t “get lucky.” The more people you know, the more you are generous, then the “luckier” you become. It’s funny how that works!

Believe me, I didn’t think it was possible either, until it happened to me. You’ll never know unless you try.

So get out there…at your own pace!

Being introverted doesn’t mean you’re doomed to the unknown outskirts of professional life. Sure, it isn’t as easy and natural as an extrovert effortlessly waltzing into a conference afterparty. But with some thoughtful effort and the right attitude, even extreme introverts can find themselves integrated into an amazing community.

Thank you so much, to everyone who has been on this journey with me. I can’t remotely express how much it means to me. I never imagined that I’d be so loved. I’m already missing everyone in LA, but am looking forward to building a community in SF!

Thanks also to Dan Turner and Marcella Missirian for reading this over and giving me more ideas to chew on!