Networking sucks, which means that there’s no shortage of advice for ways to make it fun. One of the most common suggestions is: “Don’t network—make friends instead.” But this attitude is shitty in its own way. If you befriend someone for their connections, are you really their friend? (Probably not.)
The solution is to stop substituting friendship for networking—and vice versa—and start prioritizing relationships with people over your career aspirations. This doesn’t mean you should give up on your dreams—it just means you should rethink how you interact with people on your way up the ladder.
Connect with others over shared interests
Cold emailing (or DMing) someone to ask for career advice is risky, but if you do it right, it can pay off. Start by checking your intentions: Did you decide to contact this specific person just because they seem useful, or because you’re genuinely interested in their work and want to learn more?
There’s always a little bit of both motivations behind most networking requests, but if it’s not obvious, the second answer is the right one. People can tell when a request to “pick their brain” comes from a place of mutual interest. Likewise, it’s obvious when someone doesn’t really care about their area of expertise and just need to make a contact. If you fall into that category, don’t waste their time.
This applies to existing professional relationships, too. People like to talk about themselves and their interests, so talk about them, and listen to what they have to say. In other words, stay interested—even (and especially) if there’s nothing in it for you.
Treat people like people
Even when networking events “work”—people head home with new connections and maybe a job lead—they can still feel icky and manipulative. At least some of this comes from treating people like tools, not actual people.
It’s important to remember that there’s another person at the other end of your professional interactions, and act accordingly. This can look like a million different things, but mostly boils down to respecting people’s time and feelings. A good example: Don’t ping a coworker “Hello!” with zero context and wait for an answer. They have no idea what you want, and are probably more nervous than they were before your message.
Whatever your career goals, remember that nobody gets ahead all on their own. If you want to succeed, treat the people around you with the respect they deserve—and stay interested in what they have to say. The rest will follow.