"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Thoughts
August 12, 2013

Are Networking Events A Waste Of Time?

This question was the subject of an email I received a short while ago and a subject that seems to come up regularly in conversation. So, is Networking at events a waste of time?

There are certainly evangelists out there for the idea that you’ll get nowhere in life without devoting a lot of your time to networking events.

How we answer probably depends on the kind of work we do. If you are in a strongly corporate environment, perhaps working for a multinational or you are likely to be hired by a human resources department, then I would suggest you take anything I say with a grain of salt. It might be a good idea to read what more business-centric writers like Seth Godin or Hugh MacLeod.

Much like the way LinkedIn seems essentially for some and annoyingly irrelevant for others, I believe the value of networking events depends a lot on the kind of work you do, the size of the businesses you work for and the balance of clients and services you require.

However, there are some principles which I hold to that might help you decide if networking events are useful to you, or which events to attend.

Meeting People Matters

In her excellent book on creativity, Twyla Tharp says who we become is a function of the books we read and the people we meet. In her view, books and people are a conduit for new ideas and different ways of seeing the world.

Then there’s the idea we are the average of the five people we most spend time with, originally expressed by Jim Rohn and popularised by Tim Ferris. If this idea is true (and I believe it is), there’s no way to improve our average without exposure to new people.

But, do networking events really give us the depth of interaction with new people needed for them to inspire us to see the world differently, or raise our “creative average.” My inclination is to say perhaps, maybe and probably not. There’s a lot of randomness at many networking events, a lot of shallowness, a lot of people pitching semi-fictionalised versions of themselves. When I think of the people I’ve met in the last ten years who meet Tharp’s or Rohn/Ferris’ definitions, they are seldom, if ever, people I met at networking events.

You Can’t Go It Alone

I’ve written at length before about the need to populate our lives with the right kind of people. Even if you are a freelancer, or work alone, you still need to find the right kind of people who will help you complete and share your work.

When I think of the seven categories I wrote about (mentors, sponsors, evangelists, collaborators, friends, consiglieri, supporters) it’s clear I’ve only met some at networking events. Therefore it seems wise to exercise caution in committing too much time to networking events and focussing some time on other avenues for meeting people.

It’s Good To Understand Your Craft And Your Industry

Some networking events are built around talks, lectures and workshops. These can be a good way of understanding your craft and industry better. In Hong Kong I was a regular (if infrequent) visitor to Web Wednesday and a founding member of HKSocial, both of which helped me understand the digital realm better and introduced to good ideas and practices I still use in blogging and social media.

Mixed Motivations Seldom Pay Off

This is, perhaps a more personal perspective, but I’m not a fan of doing things for mixed motives. Quite a few people I know talk up networking events for all the standard reasons, but if you watch what they do, they really just hang out with people they already know, or simply chat to existing friends. It makes me wonder, what’s the point?

It’s a principle I extend to conferences, workshops and pretty much any event that brings people together. What’s the focus and are people really acting on that focus. If not, then maybe it’s a waste of time, or there would be a better way to do that.

Networking May Be A Bad Way Of Thinking About An Important Problem

While we should value meeting people and new building relationships I do wonder if the more cultish proponents of networking might be pushing a misguided idea. Do artists and other creative souls really need “a big network,” do you really need to “get out there” if being “out there” means explaining yourself to people who don’t understand and have little interest in your craft?

I’m simply unsure how many of us really need big networks of marginally connected people filling up our contact lists. In fact, I’m inclined to think in this digital age what many of us need is more depth to the best relationships we already have and perhaps a selective number of new relationships that bring us extra insight and perspective.

So, I’m all for being intentional about meeting new people and deepening the relationships with those we don’t know well yet. But, it may well be networking events are just not the way to do that.

Spike 11 years ago

This is probably the blog post here that’s had the most personal interest for me this year. Thank you for this reasoned response to the question.

I think the general answer is that networking events pay off if they are the right events and the right people. For me, for various reasons, I have tended to attend the wrong networking events (by that I mean events that might have been interesting to me personally but had no relationship to my work).

More specifically I mean that as someone who’s career has primarily been in corporate IT, I’ve attended far more events related to the start-up community.

So I’ve built up a network of friends and acquaintances through them but when I needed a network for professional things (e.g. job hunting), I’ve basically been out there alone telling myself I should have gone to more cloud computing seminars rather than Web Wednesdays, that sort of thing.

Fernando Gros 11 years ago

Spike – thank you for your perspective. You’ve raised a great point about the relevance of events and our real needs.

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