Often I’d tell my friends I met someone awesome on a plane, and they’d say “Wow, you never stop networking”. My knee jerk reaction is to tell them I don’t think it’s networking, but then it made me think: what IS networking actually?

Let’s think back to when we learned about networking. For me it was in the first year of university where one career advisor came to my class and announced there’s a wine and cheese networking event happening with local industry professionals. She told us we should go meet these experts because that’s how we advance our career, so the more we network, the better.

I remember how awkward and uncomfortable it was for me at 18, first year ESL student, trying to “mingle” with who I perceived back then as grown up professionals, experts in their field. Who am I to get their interest and what do I have to offer? It felt so unnatural to go to these formal events, collect business cards and hope that someone will be kind enough to hire me, or at the very least offer an interview.

1. Networking is making friends

After years of pushing myself to go to such events and meeting hundreds of people in various circumstances, I now have a completely different view of what networking is. Networking is not this thing you go to and do, it doesn’t require a specific place or occasion. Networking is simply getting to know someone: either who’s right in front of you, or through someone you already know. When a friend introduces me to another friend and we start chatting – about anything – that’s networking. When I sit on a plane and introduce myself to someone next to me who’s flying to the same place as me, obviously, that’s also networking, and there’s already a common theme/interest. Every person has a job or an activity they’re pursuing, people they know and a story to tell. Being genuinely interested in what they’re doing or what they’ve got to say is really not much different from listening to an old friend who’s sharing their life events with you – we just may be more involved with people we’ve known longer, but if we’re truly interested, it shouldn’t matter how long you’ve know the person in front of you. We don’t need to go specifically to networking events, although certain places and circumstances are better designed to meet certain type of people, but it’s so important to realize that meeting people is easy anywhere.

I genuinely love meeting people and learning about their projects, hobbies and who they really are, because it expands my own outlook on life. In the past few years I’ve met most of my closer friends by just initiating a conversation with a random person next to me (many of them are actually in this very blog). Like I met someone on a bus, just by asking a question which led to a longer conversation that uncovered so many similar interests, which then led me to meeting even more closer friends who are now a part of my life so much so that I can’t imagine it without them! Some on a plane, because sitting for anywhere between 1 and 13 hours next to a stranger is weird, so I always say hello, and I met some of the closest and most awesome people that way that are friends forever now. By attending interesting social and speaker events, or conferences, or simply parties it’s so easy to strike a conversation about what they thought of it, or how they heard about it, or why they’re there in the first place, and seeking to find a topic that I would also be keen on removes the part where it feels fake or just like small talk that’s dry and polite. In the end regardless of where or how you meet someone, there’s an opportunity to connect over amazing stories and subjects that you may have never even thought of otherwise. And what better way of getting yourself a new job or a promotion or whatever else than by building great relationships?

2. Networking is helping others

Another thing that stands out is that usually when people go to networking events they are looking for something: a new job, new information, trying to get into a new industry, cover a new story, find an employee, find a co-founder, etc. And if everyone else is looking for something, who is giving something? It’s not “those” who got it all, otherwise they wouldn’t be going to these events! Because everyone is looking for something different, it’s up to you and me, and everyone else to also give. And helping others find something they’re looking for is actually what networking is. One day you help someone, another day someone helps you. That’s how connected we all are. When I first moved to San Francisco, I didn’t know anyone but I had a job. In my first month I went to networking events to hear specific panel speakers talk about their companies and how they grew into the top executive roles and what they did as part of their job. Most people I met there were looking for a job or to switch into tech, which basically meant also looking for a job, so I referred them to my company. I was literally only one month in in this country and I was helping native San Franciscans and Americans find a job. That was a huge breakthrough for me to realize that I’ve got something to offer even when I think I don’t. You just need to look.

There’s always someone you know who knows someone else, who does something, who’s looking for something too, and if you look, listen and think, you can connect the dots: by introducing people to someone with similar interests, by offering to grab a coffee and talk about what they’re up to, by inviting them to some other event you know that could be useful to them, by telling them about something you’ve seen or heard somewhere that they can explore, by recommending a book that made an impact, and so so so much more.

3. Networking is asking for help

My good friend is really awesome at directly asking her social networks for help whenever she needs something. Whether it’s looking for a new place, or a recommendation for travel, or a job – she just reaches out to those who are ALREADY in her network that may know someone or something that she’s looking for. We sometimes think we should go and meet new people because we don’t know anyone in our network that has it. But asking your network expands it to each of their own networks, which can be so much more powerful and resourceful than hoping to meet a random person at an event that may have what you want. You never know who people in your network know, or maybe it’s an old connection of yours from years ago that’s so forgotten that you don’t even think of them as someone to go to or expect help from. Reviving these relationships by making direct requests to your already established network opens many many many doors of opportunities.

That’s why it’s so important to build relationships continuously by taking interest in others and helping people when they need something. People are key to our success, happiness and fulfillment in life. No one achieved anything by themselves, it’s always through or with someone. Networking is not the business word that just means business. It’s literally everything, that’s our life. That’s people in our lives and people in their lives.

P.S. I didn’t want to use a stock photo for this, so please don’t mind my old photo 🙂