In June of 2017, I attended the first ever FEEcon—an exciting annual conference on entrepreneurship, economics, and freedom—in Atlanta. The opening night, I happened to spot Max Borders, a noted futurist, past editor of The Freeman magazine, and co-founder of Voice & Exit. He was scheduled to speak that weekend, and I had solemnly promised myself that if I found an opportunity to introduce myself I would seize it. Well, there the opportunity was, practically gift-wrapped and set in front of me. So I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders, mentally rehearsed my elevator pitch, and walked over.
“Hi,” I said with a confidence I didn’t feel. “I’m Jen Maffessanti–”
And that was as far as I got. Not because I was being brushed off, but because his face lit up with delight and he exclaimed, “Oh, hey! I’ve been wanting to meet you!”
That enthusiastic and heartwarming greeting set the stage for an incredible time at the conference. However, if I’d found myself in that situation five years prior, I never would have walked over in the first place. Truth be told, I probably wouldn’t have even been at a conference.
I am a deeply introverted person.
I am a deeply introverted person. These days, I’m not nearly as hesitant and anxious as I once was, and I’ve grown to the point that I actually do enjoy spending time with other people, but sustained social interaction still exhausts me. The process of going from a person who’d have a panic attack at the idea of attending a social function to a person who’d barely think twice about introducing herself to a relatively well-known public figure was a long and deliberate one, and the most important tool I used to do it was professional networking.
Give Yourself Motivation
Professional networking sounds a lot like the worst thing in the world to an introvert. Go to a place you’ve probably never been and talk to people you don’t know about work that you probably don’t enjoy all that much. And, unfortunately, that’s what most “networking” functions end up being.
I couldn’t reliably make myself get out and do something. I needed some other kind of incentive.
I had no intention of actually networking when I started going to events designed for that purpose. I was staying home with my kids at that point in my life, and I really didn’t have any ambitions for a professional job. What I wanted—what I needed—was motivation.
If I wasn’t running an errand, I wasn’t leaving the house. I would get so anxious about going out in public, I’d feel physically sick. I knew it wasn’t healthy, but I couldn’t reliably make myself get out and do something. I needed some other kind of incentive.
So I started volunteering to help people with things. Running a local political organization’s Twitter account. Manning the sign-in desk for a speaking event. Tabling at a local conference. I needed someone relying on me to be there for me to talk myself into actually going. And it was terrifying. But every time I did it, it became a little less scary. Eventually, the fear went away altogether, and I found myself actually looking forward to them.
Keep It Real
It probably helps that I never really thought about what I was doing as professional networking. This outlook kept my interactions genuine. If I had, I probably wouldn’t have bothered. But thinking about attending networking events as a chance to just meet people with similar interests who I have a better than average chance of getting along with is a much easier sell to myself. I just wanted to make a few new friends.
This outlook kept my interactions genuine. I wasn’t trying to leverage a conversation into a job offer. I wasn’t trying to horn in on someone else’s opportunity. It took a lot of pressure off of me and whomever I was talking to, which enabled us to form genuine connections and build friendly relationships.
Play the Long Game
Networking, I came to realize, is not for those seeking immediate gratification. You’re thinking of a job fair. No, networking is a long game. My hesitance to rush into something was taken as patience, a good quality in an employee or project partner. You go to networking events to cultivate relationships. You make yourself visible and available. You demonstrate your worth. You build up social credit. And only then do you try to start spending that credit. Which is why networking was perfect for me.
I wasn’t in a rush to get a job or a promotion. I didn’t try to push myself on others. I took my time and waited for a good opportunity, one I knew I’d be well-suited for and good at. This is where my introversion paid off. My hesitance to rush into something was taken as patience, a good quality in an employee or project partner.
Respect Your Limits
These days, I have a wonderful job at a wonderful organization in no small part because of networking, and I still like to go to networking events. Networking doesn’t end with a job offer. If you see me around at FEEcon, come up and say hi. We can be introverted together. You still need to maintain the relationships you built before you got what you were after. You still need to forge new ones.
It can be an effort, especially for the introverted. Conferences, like FEEcon, can be especially so. I know I have to schedule myself some downtime afterward to mentally recover from being around so many people for so long. But if I respect my own boundaries and pace myself, networking can be a lot of fun.
So, if you see me around at FEEcon, come up and say hi. We can be introverted together. And introduce yourself to someone you admire. You never know. They could already be looking forward to meeting you.