Why You Shouldn’t Network In College (or ever really).

This essay was originally published on my website.

Photo by Vasily Koloda on Unsplash

I was talking to a guy in college, like many other students, I noticed he would try to meet as many people as he could like he was in a race. Similar to an athlete scarfing hamburgers in a burger-eating competition.

GROSS!

This seemed ridiculous because he could say he knew of many people, but he didn’t know them besides their name, major, and maybe city. Did he know anyone at a deeper level? He missed what he was looking for (friendship) at the expense of obtaining what he thought he was looking for (many connections).

Networking is a nastiful [1] idea that everyone believes to be true but no one knows why if it’s true or if it matters.

Networking is a dark consequence of our increasingly narcissistic culture. We network so our “network” can help us find opportunities, jobs, and “yeah, just network.” That seems good, right?

We see each other like pieces in a chessboard… waiting to be used. Our interactions become superficial and dull. We only care about ourselves. “I have a goal, and I use the people in my network to help me achieve it.”

What about the goals of the same people in my network? “Well, they can wait. Let me finish accomplishing my goals first.”

You shouldn’t network because if you want to achieve your goals, you don’t go around networking. You shut your mouth, you do the work. For many careers [2], fields, and projects, networking won’t help you make an exceptional product or service. If you do something great, people will come to you.

Networking is one of the few places (maybe the only place besides stealing) where it’s ok to always take and maybe give. When we help someone, the only thing we should care about is that our help is useful. Not whether that person can help us back.

The psychologist and best-selling author, Adam Grant, explains the counterintuitive effects of networking. He says, “If we create networks with the sole intention of getting something, we won’t succeed. We can’t pursue the benefits of networks; the benefits ensue from investments in meaningful activities and relationships [3].”

When you focus on making genuine friends with people who mutually like to be with. You get the networking effects. It’s your real friends that will give you the benefits of networking, not a self-interested person you met at a random event.

College Networking

Oh boy! The number of people who come to college for networking is sad. Not only are their interactions glib, but you can also feel that they’re trying to see how you can help them now, or if you seem “smart” how you can help them in the future.

The latter point is especially important because the people who are probably going to help you more in the future are the nerds, not the “cool” or the “smart” kids. Why the nerds? They’re the ones already building a promising future by obsessively being interested in a topic with often no reason other than pure interest and curiosity [4].

By the way, don’t go around trying to befriend nerds. They’ll know when you’re being self-interested.

We believe that one reason to come to college is because of the networking argument, but I’ve already said before that’s not convincing.

From Am I Going to College? Yes. Should You Go to College? Maybe Not.

A big motivation for people going to college is “networking.” Is meeting people important? Sure yeah, but do you remember the time we’re living? We can meet anyone by clicking a button.

The networking thing isn’t solid enough and lacks independent thinking. Hello? We have LinkedIn and Twitter and whatever else. Others say they found valuable friendships and learned how to socialize with others. Sure? I don’t even know what to say about this. Perhaps it’s because I read How to Win Friends and Influence People. Just kidding (mostly).

College “networking” is more transformational than just meeting people. The connection is far different when you work and live with these people for four years, especially because of the intimate and emotional experiences with them. The emergencies, all-nighters to study for exams, parties, volunteering, heartbreaks, etc. They don’t happen online. They only happen in person, and usually in college.

The last point is crucial because that’s not even networking. Those relationships that occur when you’re interacting with these people either by doing homework or doing activities together (wink wink) happen naturally and with no interest but to be friends with them. That’s how you get the networking effects you’re after.

Remember this: Help yourself by helping others first.

Let me give you a personal example.

As a weird college student, I want everyone around me to be better. PERIOD. Whether by inflating their ambition, explaining how to create/find opportunities, and showing the possibilities.

What do I get in return? Nothing (and I want nothing in return). Other times, a “thank you” or fist bump, or sometimes they send me opportunities as well.

I do it because I genuinely want people, especially those around me to think more ambitiously about the world, their lives, and themselves. That’s how we make the world better.

Sometimes, many of us (college kids) need to be told, “Hey, you can be more ambitious,” or “Bro, you can do this cool thing.” Most people don’t do awesome shit because they didn’t know they could or that it was possible.

For example, I have an ongoing test of asking aerospace engineers where they want to work after they graduate. Why? I want to understand their ambition, their awareness of the industry, and even independent thinking.

At first, I would expect most people to say SpaceX. It’s one of the few companies doing cool, ambitious projects in the industry [5]. To my surprise, most people want to work at the bland company that lets airplanes fall. Sometimes, I ask, why not SpaceX? Some say, “Nah, they work too hard,” or “Too crazy for my taste, or “I don’t vibe with Elon.”

I don’t judge and try to understand them. Not everyone wants to work super hard or have an exciting interplanetary future because they may want a 9 to 5 life where they make “good money” and do the least they can. I could understand that (not really).

But sometimes, I ask, and I get “I want to work at SpaceX.” The first time someone said this, I was like, “HELL YEAH, tell me more.” I sent this guy a bunch of resources, and we talked about ways to avoid competition to get the internship/job or even create a better company.

And to the other aerospace students, I tell them to not only look at specific companies but to learn more about the future of the industry to get inspired and see the possibilities. Not just follow what you thought was good or what your uncle Barry told you to do.

Don’t Do Clubs or Programs For Networking

A good signal to know when something it’s a poisoned apple. It’s when they tell you one of the reasons why you should do X is because of networking.

This means, 1) the program/club isn’t good enough, so they lure you by offering something people think it’s important. 2) You should avoid (or help) the members because they’re not thinking for themselves and forces such as “prestige” and wanting what others want are driving them.

In my school, there’s this business minor program for engineering students. At first, it doesn’t look like a bad idea. “I’m studying engineering. Why not learn about business?” I guess that’s good enough.

However, I realized most people are doing it because of 1) networking, 2) “prestige,” 3) their friends are also doing it.

Because I suspected people were doing it because of those reasons, I ate lunch with a friend and asked him questions about why he was doing it and what he wanted to do after college. When I asked why, he said what everyone else says, 1) I like talking to people, 2) networking is good, 3) a good backup plan.

A lot of red flags because believe it or not, engineers talk to people (lots of them work in teams). Networking? You probably know what I think. A good backup plan? He isn’t sure about his future and career of study.

I said, “Ok, but what do you want to do after college?” He says, “I want to work at NASA and improve the chemistry of rocket fuel.” And then he goes for like five minutes about how he would do it, the chemistry behind it, and why they need to do it.

I looked at him and said, “Why the hell are you doing this bullshit minor, then? Why don’t you do physics or something like that?” He looked confused and said, “You’re right. I guess this doesn’t contribute to my goal.”

He still said why he wanted to do it, but at least he could have better reasoning and be aware of hidden forces driving him. I hope he reconsiders and gets a minor in physics or chemistry.

The number of clubs or programs people do for networking is tragic. Clubs or programs are often a great learning environment and a fantastic way to meet people. However, you need to be careful because you can get caught up in going to stupid meetings and doing things to put in a resume.

Guess what? They don’t look as impressive as you think when everyone else does the same thing.

Why would I join a time-sucking club when I could use that time to build something that pays off in the future like making videos, writing essays, coding a project, or building a startup?

You don’t have to choose. You can do both. I’ll do both. I’m careful and avoid the clubs with diminishing returns of the type of people and learning.

Please Don’t Network.

Oh, and if you didn’t know, if you actively try to network in college, you’ll annoy the heck out of people, and you’ll get very little or nothing from your efforts.

This does not mean you should never talk or meet people, you need a better approach. In How to Win at College, Cal Newport shares the “antinetworking” approach, which consists of getting what you want by never asking for it.

Cal explains when you interact with a potential connection, they suspect you’re another of those self-interested students looking for an internship or job. He suggests, “The key is to act as if you have already been offered your dream job, and looking for employment is the farthest thing from your mind. You are confident, your future is secure, but you are curious about what this person does and why.”

Being genuinely curious is the reason you’re talking to that speaker, scientist, or entrepreneur. Not only are you knowledgeable about this person’s work, but you also want to find out more about what you don’t know.

However, when you’re interacting with them, Cal explains you need to keep a couple of things in mind, he says:

You never once offer up elements of your résumé unless specifically asked, and even then, you do so with restraint. You show consideration and respect. You are confident without coming across like a used-car salesman. Not once do you show even a hint of underlying self-interest. In fact, you might even forget to give your name, leaving the contact to ask you as you walk away. This is antinetworking, and it works.

After this interaction, the person will chill and drop their defenses, and they may even remember the student who had genuine curiosity and an impressive desire to learn.

That’s cool this person will remember you, now what? This is what many believe the secret of success is: the follow-up. This is how you can turn a conversation into a lasting connection.

Cal shares a strategy about how you follow-up with people. He recommends:

The best you can do is periodically send an update e-mail asking a very well-formed relevant question or requesting a thoughtful and relevant piece of advice. But never once ask for a blatant favor. The key to the antinetworking approach is to impress without imploring.

The goal is that one day the contact, who has grown fond of you and is impressed by you and your integrity, will notify you that he or she knows of a job opening, and will be willing to recommend you if you are interested.

This is a long-term approach that will take patience and commitment. It’s hard, and it works rarely. But impertinent networking will work less, and you’ll end up annoying a bunch of people along the way.

Learning from Your Future Selves

If someone comes from a “disadvantaged” background, they are less likely to have a “network” of people and resources. What would you do in this case?

I may be a good example.

I moved to the U.S. and I didn’t know the language nor had a “network”. I noticed learning from other people’s mistakes such as my future selves was a way to get ahead and get to my goal quickly and more efficiently.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve reached out to a TON of people via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, phone calls, and any other way I could talk to people. That’s how I’ve found amazing opportunities and talked to people like Mark Cuban, Ray Dalio, Ariana Huffington, Jeff Bezos, Derek Sivers, Sheryl Sandberg, and thousands of other people.

The difference is I was curious about their work, I had specific questions, and I had a precise ask.

I wasn’t reaching out so I could say I “networked” with this or that person because that’s not even networking. I was learning from my future selves’ mistakes or asking for a hand from my future selves.

Just yesterday, I emailed an economics professor who researches globalization. I sent him an email and will be meeting with him soon. Again, I’m trying to learn about him and his work, and I want nothing but to learn from him.

Last week, my website expired and I couldn’t afford the yearly fee. I emailed the CEO of Squarespace and he believed in my mission and gifted me one more year. I’ll always be grateful to Mr. Casalena.

See the difference?

I don’t freaking network. I learn and ask for help from my future selves.

This is How You Network

You don’t!!!!

I was doing chemistry homework and I didn’t get a problem and needed help to approach it. This guy hears me and comes up to me. He says, “Do you need help with the problem?” Before replying, I was surprised. I said to myself, “He must be a nice, selfless person.”

So I reply and say, “Yes, I actually do. Can you please help me?” And he said, “Sure, but do you have any other homework you can give me? If not, I won’t be able to help.” I looked at him for a few seconds in silence, and said, “Ok, yeah, no worries.”

Internally, I was like, “WHAT AN AS*****!!!” And of course, this guy had the networking virus who would talk and interact with people only for “networking purposes.” If you didn’t seem smart, he wouldn’t talk to you. But if you seemed “smart” or interesting, he’d be there licking your toes.

A few days later, he learned about some things I had done, and suddenly he started offering help and being nice. “No, thank you.”

Avoiding assholes is as important as making friends.

Let’s stop for a second and think this through. If everyone is being a selfish, self-interested animal who only cares about networking and making “connections.” If you want to network, you do the opposite, which is not networking.

The best approach to networking is not networking. You focus on helping others rather than being helped. You focus on understanding rather than being understood. You focus on genuinely becoming interested in other people rather than making them interested in you.

The best way to help yourself is by helping others first.

What a boring world it would be if we only care about ourselves. That’s not how the world works most effectively. The world functions best when we are helping each other achieve our goals.

Humans are not selfish, we’re scared. We’re scared someone will take our jobs or our partners, but here’s the truth, the world is bigger and more different. Bigger means more opportunities than you can ever think of. More different means it’s often positive-sum, where no one wins at someone else’s expense.

So next time someone is trying to network with you, smile and try to understand them. It’s not their fault, they have a societal mental virus, and they’re not thinking for themselves.

Focus on making meaningful caring friends, not nasty narcissistic connections.

Don’t network. Make friends.

Notes

[1] Yes, that’s not a typo. It’s a word.

[2] “What if I’m a business major?” Knowing people helps in any major or career field. Networking won’t help with that. Having genuine relationships will.

[3] From Give and Take by Adam Grant.

[4] What does this have to do with anything? Being interested in a subject for its own sake is often correlated to 1) high competence, 2) depth of knowledge, 3) genuine interest.

[5] Sure, other aerospace companies do cool stuff but let’s be real, they did nothing for decades or just starting now.

Thanks to Aditya for reading drafts of this essay.

If you’d like to read similar essays, join hundreds of smart and curious people in my Weekly Memos. I’ll see you there, next Sunday.

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