Shreya Shankar

Networking for people who hate networking

April 08, 2019 in #personal · 4 min read

Here’s a secret about me: I hate networking. I’m quite terrible at pretending to be extremely engaged in a stranger’s generic words, and I can’t fool myself into believing that the stranger is taking me seriously. I would much rather sit in the corner of a room and read a book than mingle with many people. I’m always impressed by people who can put a smile on their faces and meet everyone. I am not a networker, but I am part of a field where networking, in some fashion, is essential to climb the ladder.

Oh my gosh! I totally resonate with you, Shreya! you might think. If so, this post is for you. How does a non-networker network? Over the past few years, I’ve run in and out of many circles — the women in tech community, a community of student founders, the research community, and more. I’ve gone to meetups, dinners, and conferences. As someone with a clinically diagnosed anxiety issue, I’ve found it hard to be a productive human being at these events. But over time, here’s what I’ve learned:

  1. Have a specific goal. Meetups can be overwhelmingly large and filled with people from various backgrounds. If you go to a conference, you can have a goal to learn about a specific technology. If you’re a startup founder and go to a meetup with other founders, you can have a goal to learn about raising seed funding. When you have a specific goal, you can find people to meet that help you accomplish your goal.
  2. You don’t have to talk to everyone. I tell myself to meet just two people and try to have interesting conversations with them. It’s easy for me to become nervous when thinking about all the people I could have been interacting with, but there will always be tons of successful people I can learn from. There are more successful people in the world than minutes in the day. Might as well relax and pick a couple of people to get to know better.
  3. It isn’t about having a large network; it’s about having a strong network. Spend most of your time with a few people, rather than a little bit of time with a lot of people. People that you are well-connected to will open doors for you. Great opportunities come my way because of people I am close to, not people I’ve met once for a few minutes.
  4. Real relationships take time. I’ve probably built a real relationship with less than 1% of the people I’ve met at events or conferences. Following up with everyone I’ve talked to just exhausts me — I’m too much of a nerdy introvert. I only send follow-up emails when I’ve had an initial conversation that I can’t stop thinking about for hours. Maybe this makes me less likely to become “successful,” but my relationships are a lot more genuine and fulfilling to me. I feel less stressed when I remind myself that I don’t need to follow up with or deeply connect with everyone I meet.
  5. Don’t come off as too eager. This can turn people away. Famous people probably don’t want you to come to them just because they’re famous; they want you to come to them for their skills. (Or they might not want you to come to them at all, but that’s a different story).
  6. You don’t have to always talk about work. Often people want or need a break from work. Go out and explore the area with some people if you’re at a conference instead of talking about LSTMs all day long. My most memorable times at NeurIPS involved exploring the city that the conference was in.

At the end of the day, it’s most important to have compassion for yourself. If you didn’t talk to everyone you wanted to talk to, it’s okay. If you didn’t accomplish your goal, it’s okay. Networking is hard and tiring! I always try to focus on what I’ve gained from the experience and feel proud of myself, even if I didn’t do anything but show up.

Thanks to Nitya Mani for feedback on this post.

Shreya Shankar likes systems and machine learning.