Your Greatest Asset

Your Greatest Asset

I recently wrote about turning 50 and shared some of my reflections on reaching that milestone. One of the things it prompted in me was an honest evaluation of my life so far – that tricky ledger of wins, losses, failures and regrets. Like so many people, I am often busier than I would like to be: I am a mother of small children, wife and business owner. But one of the things I do regret is letting certain connections slide, when I know that it is really our relationships with other people that tend to give our lives the most value, meaning and purpose over time.

There’s also ample scientific data to suggest that it is the quality of our relationships, more than status or material success, that is the key to aging well and keeping ourselves happy and healthy on the road of life. Feeling connected to other people helps us feel more optimistic, less anxious and makes us more resilient in the face of hard times when they inevitably come calling. Why then, is it so difficult to connect with other people, or re-connect with people if we’ve fallen out of touch?

Well, I think pride often gets in the way. Ego too. We don’t want to be seen as needy in any way. Much better to be seen as independent, self-sufficient, totally in charge. “I’m doing GREAT!” We may also be afraid of uncomfortable emotions that could arise – like sadness, fear, guilt or shame – if we were to share openly and honestly about ourselves. And this is one of life’s many great paradoxes: that in order to have a meaningful connection with someone in the first place, we have to be willing to let ourselves be vulnerable. We have to risk being needy. And appearing needy is the very last thing we want to do.

Another Way To Think About Networking

One way to reframe the dreaded N-word is to focus on the giving rather than the getting. What can I give to this person – in terms of leads, advice, resources, a referral – that might be useful? If done freely and sincerely, then it is natural that people will want to reciprocate. So try to think of networking as a two-way street, something that enlarges both our lives. With this mindset, every person you meet is somebody worth knowing. Who knows, but maybe the next person you meet could be your future colleague or business partner.

There’s an old saying in marriage that “Love is a verb.” Which means it is active, rather than passive. It’s something you do, rather than have. And I think the same holds true for our other relationships as well. We have to continually work at them. The gardening metaphor is apt here. Both a garden and a relationship will naturally go through cycles of growth, periods of lying fallow. Both require regular care and maintenance. But if the conditions are right, both will, on occasion produce blooms that may surprise us. What are some of the ways we can do this?

Semi-regular check-ins

We all lead busy lives. It’s not possible to keep in touch with everyone all the time. But even the occasional sincere check-in can do wonders to keep the network alive. It doesn’t have to be transactional either. Maybe it’s a shared article (“I thought you might enjoy this..”) or a more personalized note that says “Hey, I was just thinking of you because of x, y or z…” Never underestimate the power of a personal note to let someone know they matter to you. And a handwritten note on paper? Well, that’s rarer than a hen’s tooth, and maybe the greatest gift of all.

Become the host

If the network or group that you would like to join does not exist – then think about creating it. Maybe you’re a sedentary writer who would like to meet other writers, but away from the keyboard. You could create a writer’s collective for walks, hikes, cycling, etc. I belong to several groups of female entrepreneurs who meet at regular intervals to support and encourage one other. I’ve never regretted any time I’ve spent here. It really doesn’t matter what the activity – book club, swim club, or garden club – but there is value is sharing our journey with others. If you don’t know the host, then become the host!

Ask for what you need

It can be hard to ask for what we want – we fear rejection, hearing no, what people might think of us. The truth is, most people aren’t thinking of us at all. They’re thinking about themselves and what they will have for dinner. I sometimes get requests from people that I am happy to field – so long as they are direct, clear and concise. What do you need? An introduction? A reference? A warm referral? Is there a particular kind of client you’re looking for? Let me think about it, and I’ll get back to you. Most people are happy to help us if we let them. But we have to ask first.

Listen more than you talk

We live in an age of noise, and it can be challenging to hear anything above the din. But in my experience, most great connections come from deep listening. If you really want to connect with someone, it requires careful attention to what is said (and sometimes unsaid). This means being genuinely curious, asking good questions, and listening to the answer. Most people are very good talkers, less good at listening. But like a good tennis match, or a presidential debate, each should get “equal time.”

There’s an apocryphal story told about a 19th Century society lady who one night attends a dinner in London and finds herself seated next to William Gladstone, then the Prime Minister of England. She left the dinner that evening thinking that Gladstone was by far the cleverest man she had ever met. Two weeks later, she was seated at another table where her dinner companion this time was Benjamin Disraeli, his great political rival. She left this dinner thinking that she was the cleverest person in England. Which one would you want to sit beside? *

The people in your network – these are your allies, and your greatest asset. So invest wisely in them. There’s never been an easier time to get in touch. And stay in touch!

* From an anecdote told by David Brooks in his lecture “How to know a person.”