As a follow up to my last post on the occasional awkwardness of networking, a reader passed on this article: 12 tips to help shy people increase their “networking mojo” (Austin Powers references: often good; here: makes me cringe). As in the Jibber Jobber post I referenced earlier, Meridith Levinson also cites the book Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi. I’ve never heard of either Ferrazzi or his book until now, but they seem to be if not trusted then at least oft-cited resources in the networking world. The first thing that caught my attention, though, struck me as a bit odd:
Humans are hard-wired as communal, tribal animals, so the shy person isn’t shy by nature,” says Ferrazzi. “They are shy by design. Something happened to them to make them want to recoil.”
Sometimes, when an introvert hears that he’s not inherently a loner, that humans are innately social creatures, the realization helps him emerge from his shell of shyness, he says.
I’m not really sure how this is at all constructive. Sure, networking is important for all professionals and, yes, shy people can do well to find strategies to help them overcome their shyness (hence the point of this article, I thought). But to tell a shy person that the best way to get over their shyness is to finally come to the realization that no one is really shy so stop whining? Is that a serious piece of advice? That’s like telling a Bengals fan (of which I am one) that everyone is inherently a Giants fan and the best way to get over rooting for a crappy team is to realize that, innately, I am a Giants fan. Or, perhaps, like telling a gay person that everyone is inherently straight and that the best way to get over not being able to marry your partner is just to realize that, innately, you are straight.
Maybe Ferrazzi has some sort of concrete anthropological evidence in his book to back up this assertion. And I suppose I shouldn’t be going after him after reading just one out of context quote. But the quote did indeed strike me as particularly silly and, in a way, brought to boil a lingering, festering frustration I have with a lot of career advice articles and blog posts out there: they always try to sum every subject up with a series of tidy numbered bullets. 12 strategies for overcoming shyness, 5 ways to beat the economic downturn, 37 steps to a new you. The problem with the kind of column Levinson gives us here is it intimates two falsehoods: that everything about this topic can be boiled down into a set of 5 or 12 or 37 simple parts, and that the author knows for a fact that these 5 or 12 or 37 parts are everything that needs to be said about this particular career development topic, and you the reader didn’t know that, which is why the author is passing on his or her divinely-inspired wisdom for you to digest, then promptly enact with great success in the real world!
But things don’t boil down into numbered sets and whatever any one writer has to say about any one subject is never the last word. There are always other opinions and angles to be considered, other aspects to be learned. Sherry and I have always tried to stray away from giving this kind of tidy, no-further-argument-needed advice. We would much rather encourage a true conversation about issues in career development than propagate shallow, efficient tid-bits to make everyone feel better about themselves.
Levinson’s article has its redeeming points and is possibly worth a scan. But beware the condescension that drips from a good chunk of it (”…if they just possessed more self-confidence and weren’t such self-conscious wallflowers…” and “…it is possible for shrinking violets and shy guys to master the skill of networking…”). What Levinson doesn’t seem to realize is that networkers can’t be lumped into two distinct and separate categories, as she wants to do: those who can (like, presumably, her) and those who lack all self-confidence and fear rejection and feel unworthy and, ultimately, can’t. There are many different types of networkers, all of whom have confidence and feel they are worthy: those who excelled in it in one field but may be switching to a new field and are having difficulty finding traction there; those who are not shy in some situations but find difficulty getting their footing in a business situation; those who are introverts by nature (yes, I would say some of us are shy inherently, not because something “happened” to us); those who are excellent networkers in a variety of situations. It seems it would be far more prudent and useful to recognize this fact and then begin an actual conversation on networking that could examine all sides and all types, rather than generously giving to us poor, fearful, confidence-lacking have-nots the 12 steps we need to follow in order to become the haves.