Saturday, February 9, 2013

Make Friends, Not Connections

On the subway yesterday, I sat next to this kid from my school who wants to be an investment banker. He told me that he was on his way to an internship. I told him that I was on my way to eat lunch with James Lopez, co-founder of The Phat Startup, a blog about rap and entrepreneurship that I really like and that I contribute to sometimes. 

Then this kid starts talking about connections. Success in business, he says, is all about who you know. He tells me that he has an Excel spreadsheet of 200-plus names that he’s emailed asking to connect with them. He says that he color codes them based on their responses—green means keep talking, red means they’re not interested. On holidays, he emails them wishing them a Merry Christmas or a Happy New Year. This is how he builds his social network.

It seemed so artificial. I guess if you want a job, this might be an effective approach, but what a soul-draining thing to do. But maybe that is the best way for him to operate—I mean, he’s objectively successful, he’s going to an Ivy League school, he has a very bright career as a Wall Street investment banker ahead of him. 

I did a pre-orientation program with this kid before. We used to talk a lot. In high school he wanted to be a doctor. He got into some incredibly prestigious direct-med programs (which means one is guaranteed acceptance into medical school upon college graduation). My ex-girlfriend got into these programs too, so I know a bit about the application process. You really have to convince their admissions committees that you are dedicated to service and have a genuine desire to help the world.

This kid told me he switched from wanting to be a doctor to an investment banker when he watched “Inside Job,” a documentary about the 2008 financial crisis. He said that rather than feeling anger towards Wall Street, as many viewers would, the film instead made him want to become an investment banker. During our pre-orientation program, we listened to a panel of successful entrepreneurs talk about their lives. One of them said “For so many of you who have always been overachievers, the best advice I can give is don’t be a performer. So many people just perform all their life. They fulfill the expectations of their parents or society rather than what they actually want to do. If you don’t do what you love, you’re not going to be happy.” Afterwards, that kid told me “you know how that guy today was talking about performers? I think that’s me.”

I see flyers all the time for "speed networking events" at Columbia. The pictures on them disgust me: a bunch of young professionals in suits, sitting at white-cloth tables, glassy eyes and painted smiles on their face making small talk for 5 minutes and then moving on. Ain't no way in hell I want to be a part of that. 

I'd rather make friends. Friends seem like the best connections of all: people who genuinely like you and who you like back, who would actually put you on. When I told that kid I was going to meet James, he said something like "good networking." I never once thought of it as networking. I thought of it as meeting a mentor-like figure for me. At lunch, James and I talked about our shared interests: rap and writing and sneakers and entrepreneurship. Never once did the conversation feel forced. I guess you could characterize him as a "connection," but he's someone who I genuinely like and admire. He's a friend.

As an introverted person, the prospect of success being so reliant on making connections used to terrify me. But that’s because I was thinking about it wrong. Trying to meet people because you want to make connections is fake and self-serving. Trying to meet people because you want to make friends—well, that’s a different story. Before I started reading The Phat Startup, I didn’t know that there were people out there who also saw the similarities between rap and entrepreneurship the way I did. I reached out, not because I wanted to make a “connection,” but because I liked what they did and thought that we would have a lot to talk about. As it turned out, we did, and I've been working with them since.

Life is all about your social network. But who’d you rather have in that network? Fake friends or real friends? People who are numbers on a spreadsheet or people whose numbers you actually have? The answer, I think, is obvious. At least if you’re real.