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.


  1. You know, I've always felt the same way about meeting people. I'd much rather have one or 2 genuine relationships than to "connect" with 15-20 people. It's great to know more people but if they're all part of some system of lists that you go through like some robot, where is the passion in that?

    I've never been compelled to work the room. Rather than trying to find someone who could do something for me, I'd much rather meet people and build a bond and let that decide what happens from there. You could find a business partner, a friend, hell even a love interest. No matter what you do, enjoy it. That's what people are here for, to enjoy each other.

    1. Marc, I agree re: one or two genuine relationships, I honestly feel it would be better and more helpful to have those one or two people rather than 15 acquaintances.

      Also agree re what people are here for, to enjoy each other, not to make meaningless connections with each other. the best relationships, business or otherwise, happen organically. thanks for reading!

  2. I wouldn't be so condemning of speed networking, etc. At speed networking (or other formalized networking events) you may get a bunch of meaningless contacts, but you may meet people who become your friends. And it's an efficient way to do that. At such an event, there may be 40 people there, but one of them is James Lopez. Now, certain type of idealists will say that you will just organically meet James Lopez, as you did in this situation. But it doesn't always happen that way. A networking event may feel "artificial," but the relationships you take away from such an event don't have to be. And there IS, in my opinion, a place for contacts who are not friends. I wouldn't be emailing them Merry Christmas though unless you work with them closely enough for the line to be blurry at the very least between contact and friend. Not because it feels artificial to you, but because THEY may see it as fakery, and that's not good. Moreover, it creates an obligation that THEY send you a Christmas email every year.

    "Organic" interaction has limitations. You may go to school with someone and not really know them or not like them, but since you friend them on Facebook or connect with them on LinkedIn or whatever, you later find out about a news story about some awesome project they're working on, and you realize wow, this person is somebody I could be friends with, or this person is somebody who could make me money (I'll get to the selfishness of the latter in just a minute). But that doesn't happen if you're all wrapped up in: I don't want to connect with them, I don't want to "friend" them, that's artificial, and I won't do it because it's artificial. I'm not saying you have to do any particular artificial thing, but I'd just be more open to artificial stuff in general.

    The more people you talk to, the more your perspective and knowledge grows. Yes, make those conversations meaningful. But they don't have to be conversations with friends.

    Now let's get to the selfishness aspect. That thing about friending people and connecting with them: well, a long time ago, I decided I would friend everyone that I knew on Facebook. I don't know why exactly I decided this, but I kept it up, at least, for selfish reasons (that is, I kept it up until recently because of social intricacies I won't go into now; I'm not friends with most LaunchHouse people on Facebook, for instance). I realized collecting Facebook friends might be useful to me, and if I didn't want to see what a particular person was posting, I was Facebook-savvy, and knew how to customize my news feed without un-friending them.

    I friended people from a camp I went to, I friended people from my old schools, I friended everybody. All for personal gain.

    But doing things for personal gain is not wrong. I recommend you loosen up and try it sometime. It's fun. But in all seriousness (actually, I was being serious just then), you know that I have exceptions to that rule: I just talked about how it can actually be not nice to send a Christmas email! DON'T spread the cheer!

    You can have friends that you make, close friends even, and all the while, while you're cultivating this/these friendship(s), you're doing it for personal gain. You're manipulating people? Yes, perhaps. But if you also want to get to know these people and respect them and you're making a genuine effort, what you did is what you're preaching in this post: genuine friendships, the only difference being you happened to know how the person/people could help you for your own gain.

    As for friending people? Ken Brickman, who is not a close friend of mine, but was on dorm staff at a boarding school I went to happens to be doing some cool things, including Liking the LightHouse Ohio page, and visiting the LaunchHouse apparently (but I wasn't there today!!!!!! Ahhhhhh!)

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. On the subject of Merry Christmas emails, I have 2 friends who are not close friends, and it would be too late and no social context (as of now) to cultivate actual friendships. But I like them. And since I want to have a context to be sending a message, and since I don't have total confidence that they'd reply any other time of year, at Christmas time, I send each of these friends a Merry Christmas Facebook message asking how they're doing, and we catch up a very little bit, and it might be characterized as "small talk," but it's meaningful to me. Whether it's meaningful to them I don't know, but little things can be meaningful. I just wanted to tell that story, it really has no relation to my previous comment or your post.