This is the vision that the word “networking” conjures in my mind.
I walk into a bar packed with men in suits and women in appropriately hip brightly colored patterned blouses. There is a small nerdy looking man sitting in a polo shirt at a folding table, with stacks of namecard stickers. I am immediately stricken with the impulse to ignore him, to walk right past him like I’m meeting someone else and I’ve just spotted them. I don’t know why, but every time I see a folding table by a doorway with name stickers, I hate them. I never know how to write my name – should it be just my first, or my first and last? Am I supposed to put my professional title on there, or what company I’m from? It’s all wasted questioning, because I am never “from a company” and I always use my last name because I like my names together so much. Also, it’s my blog name. It’s like my brand. I mean, actually, it is my brand right? If in this new brave world we’re all known by our online proclivities, isn’t everyone’s full name their brand? Which is funny because last names usually derived from what job a person did in the village, or something personal significant about their lives, so the original surnames were all basically brands too. While I’ve been thinking about this, I have actually just been standing there at this folding table, staring at the sticker, marker in hand. I scrawl my name really quick and walked quickly away from the table, my eyes scanning the room in panic for any face I know.
Everyone else in the room has already glimpsed at the door, on the look-out themselves, Someone I do know sees me, and waves me over. So I stand with them for a few minutes, get introduced to their friends. Their friends are all dressed very nicely. I am dressed, well, like I’m always dressed, for everything. I don’t have different outfits for different occasions, I just have clothes I think I look okay in. This is the first way in which I feel inferior to these people. These are people who probably pack away their winter clothes and have outfits just for cruises. When they introduce themselves, they all ask me what I do, one by one. There are two ways for me to answer this question. The first is to admit what I do for a day job which is work for a large corporation they have definitely heard of. This is more truthful, because this is how I get paid, but also less interesting because my particular position has absolutely no relation to what they do for a living, and this is a networking event after all. So I could also answer the second way, which is to tell them I’m a writer. This is more emotionally accurate, but I don’t get paid to write, and then I have to answer all these follow up questions, like what do I write and what have I written? I want to get really famous someday so I can yell absurdly in public at people who ask me those questions.
By this time, I’ve managed to squeeze my way to the bar for a drink, and I’ve spotted someone else across the room, so I go say hi to them. I’ll have to be introduced to everyone standing around them in a 2 ft radius, and I’m going to have the exact same exchange of boring life details with them. If I try to talk to my friend about something personal, then we’re excluding the rest of the group. If I try to actually talk with someone I just met, it’s impossible to keep their attention on anything but work. Inevitably, I will find some girl around my own age, and we’ll have the conversation about how we don’t like networking events, how they’re just singles events really, about how every guy in this place is wearing a suit and that’s weird. I’ll try talking to some guy who works for a non-profit, and by now I’m on my second drink, so I’ll start to go on about how much I like cities, and the Rustbelt, and I’ll lose him just about the time I start talking about how I think civic boosterism breeds this unhealthy expectation to stay in the same place your whole life. I will totally be monopolizing people in conversation now, because really they just want to have their five minutes of exchanging pleasantries and move on to the next person. Because they foster this hope that somewhere in this room, sipping red wine and eating stale cheese on crackers, is a person that is going to be useful to them. Only problem is I can’t have five minute conversations without getting more and more snarky as the evening goes on.
Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea of networking, in the philosophical sense. I understand that in some professions, it is absolutely mandatory. For instance, my dad is an excellent networker, because he’s worked for nonprofits his whole life. Sometimes if you can’t network, you don’t get funding, meaning you also don’t get a paycheck. But non-career specific networking is just the practice of making friends and knowing people, which is an extremely powerful tool to know how to use when you live in any kind of society. Power is connection. I am human, I like power, therefore I like connections. What I don’t like are people who think their job equates to their real power. Your real power is what you can contribute as a person to an idea. Sometimes that means you’re an organizer, sometimes you’re the nebulous creative thinker, sometimes you’re the audience giving feedback. Everyone has a role to play in the creation of new things, new projects, new business. And if we could just write that on our nametags instead, how great would that be? “Bridget, creative ideas regarding abandoned property use, terrible at paperwork.” See? So much more helpful than “Bridget, corporate drone, casual dresser.” Networking isn’t the problem. The problem is we are trying to network with the wrong things, or maybe, even deeper than that, we are identifying our entire lives through the wrong things. We don’t lead with our best foot forward, so to speak, the best foot in this case being a personality active in the universe around it. Yeah, yes, I did just go there. Because it’s true! I refuse to believe that the majority of people in this world are actually as boring as they try so hard to make me think they are! You, young man in the suit! I don’t care what your title is, or where you went to school. Tell me about what you do besides work. And please let it be something besides running. But hey, no, even if it’s only running, that’s still something. Maybe someday I need someone to help me shop for running shoes, and while we’re talking about shoes I’ll mention this other guy I know who’s organizing some charity race event and you’ll want to run in it and boom! Connection.
That’s probably the best thing to come from Facebook’s total infiltration of our lives, even the most filtered bland facebook profile is forced to be more personality specific than a business card. Someday all the old people will retire from your offices, and maybe guidelines about personal data will be a little relaxed, and we’ll all get to know each other as people rather than just co-workers or business associates.
I am currently organizing this event we’ve called Artworking. I want it to be a chance for people who do creative things, or even just have creative thoughts, to come and meet other people with artistic abilities, or just the desire to be involved in something artistic. This started because I had this great idea for an augmented reality phone app which would allow you to view public art created virtually on top of existing places and views in Cleveland. Like, when you held your phone up and viewed a bus stop through it, the bus stop would be covered in virtual flowers, or a dragon would be eating it, or an immense crows nest is now perched on it. I love this idea. However, I have no idea how to design an app. I asked around, looking for a designer who would like this idea, or someone who could point me in the right direction. The only leads I got were business cards and professional twitter accounts. None of which were interested in helping with this idea unless they were getting paid for it, fair enough. That’s what professional networking events are for – finding clients or getting job leads. However, what I need to do is meet that one app designer who really wants to create something just because it’s cool, and we get along, and this will be fun. And I thought, how many other people out there are like me? They have this great idea, but they’re not an artist, or a musician, or a filmmaker, and they can’t pull it off alone. So this is going to be an event where those people can meet up and share what ideas or skills they have, and see what everybody else has got, maybe see where our ideas intersect, and hopefully meet someone who might help these ideas actually live. It IS a networking event, but it’s networking for the things that make us complete adults outside our paychecks. Life networking, which is the same as organized bike rides, supper clubs, or softball teams. Except, Art. Graphic novels, music videos, an entire wall covered in old CDs, whatever.
My high school had a motto, which turned out to be a pretty kickass motto to stare at every day. ‘We learn not for School, but for Life.” Replace School with Work, and it’s just as valid to a 32 yr old girl as a 17 yr old one. Maybe I’ll just put that on my nametag next time, and see how many people avoid me outright cause I look like a weirdo.
2801 Bridge Avenue
Cleveland, OH 441 44113
Thursday, April 19, 2012 from 7:00 PM to 10:00 PM (ET)
All proceeds will benefit the Marilyn Bianchi Kids' Playwriting Festival at Dobama Theatre
$15 includes admission, a drink, and a chance to meet your next creative collaborator