Networking: Getting started (Part negative-1)

Hold up, wait a minute.  Let me put some (context?) in it.

I need to back things up a little bit.  Before you do an informational interview, even before you reach out to to your network to ask for contacts, it helps to spend some time really thinking about what is it that you really want.

When I was growing up, I wanted to be a teacher. I loved learning, I loved the way knowing stuff made me feel, and I wanted to help others feel that way, too.  In kindergarten, I decided I wanted to be a kindergarten teacher.  In the first grade, I wanted to be a first grade teacher.  And so it went.  Until one of my teachers found out I wanted to grow up to be a teacher just like her, and she told me “That’s a waste of your brain.”

I think I went home and cried that day.  But she was my teacher, someone I idolized and trusted, and being a child at the time, I listened to her.  So, I tried thinking about what else I could be.  I was pretty good at math and science, and my science teacher always had engineering posters up in her classroom, so I decided I’d do that.

I did end up studying engineering in college, although a part of me still longed to do something in education. Senior year, I seriously considered applying to get my master’s degree in Education, but everyone else in my major was going through recruiting, and management consulting seemed to be the primo gig.  I eventually chose to apply for the types of jobs my classmates were applying for, and landed a position at a niche consulting firm.

Within a year at my first job, I knew I wanted to leave.  I was so unhappy, I left without another job prospect in hand.  Luckily, after a short period of time, I found a job in the marketing division of a packaged foods company.  Things were good for a while.  I was good at my job, and it was interesting work.  But the industry I worked in pretty much required an MBA for management level positions, so all of my colleagues suggested I apply to business school.

Applying to business school requires a ton of introspection, as you’re asked to recount your life story (past, present, and future) and explain how their particular school fits into your plan.  You also have to be able to answer incredibly open-ended questions, like “What matters to you most, and why?” I spent months looking back at my past and trying to decipher my recent choices in life.  I asked friends for help, had numerous conversations with people, and filled an entire notebook with my thoughts and hypotheses.  It was during that process that I realized that at the core of me, I wanted to do work that helped enable people to succeed.  And so, I told business schools that I wanted to pursue a career in public education.

Looking back, I spent a whole lot of time doing things that other people thought would be good for me.  Now, for the first time in my life, I am doing exactly what I want to be doing. The reason I was able to get here is because I have a clear idea of what I want, and I am not afraid to go after it.

I promise I’ll eventually return to the networking series, and tell you how to start networking and conduct informational interviews and hold a wine glass, plate of hors d’oeuvres, and napkin in one hand while keeping the other free for shaking hands.  I just wanted to pause and bring it back to the key idea at the center of this blog.

What do I do with my life?

Do something that nurtures your passions, lets you do what you’re good at, and keeps you true to your values.  But first, take some time to figure out what those things are.

Yet, I also know that I may not want to do this forever.  My skills and life-stage will evolve, at which point I may need to serve my core passions and values in a different way, with a different job.  I currently work for a network of public charter schools, helping them figure out how to run their operations in the most efficient way possible, so that we can dedicate more of every dollar we receive to our kids and their classrooms.  I recently told my supervisor that five-years from now, I hope to be a part-time mom with her own full-service children’s party planning business.  In ten years, I would love to be a full-time life coach.  All of these things integrate elements of what I am passionate about, what I am good at, and what I value.

Networking: Getting started (Part 2)

In the last post, we established:

  1. There is at least one person willing to help you in this process of figuring out what you want to do
  2. You need to tell them that you need help and how they can help you

This post is about how to ask for help.

Step 1: Compile a list of people to contact. Think about who is in your inner, middle, and outer circles.  Write down the names of your family, friends, teachers, classmates, alumni, community associates, etc.  You can grow this list by building your network, which typically involves going to events, getting involved, and meeting new people.  (Scroll down to the bottom of my last post and read my friend’s comment on building your network.)
Continue reading

Networking: Getting started (Part 1)

My cousin goes back to San Jose State’s college of business every semester to talk to juniors and seniors, and one of the things he stresses to them is the value of networking.

My cousin and I, like many people, didn’t really get into networking until we needed a job.  It’s too bad, because it was at that point that we realized we should have started much earlier.  And so we go back to colleges to tell juniors and seniors to learn from our mistakes and begin to network while still in school.

Many students I’ve talked to recognize that this is good advice, but don’t know how to act on it.

“But I don’t have a network.  Most of the people I know are my age.”

You do have a network.  Remember, a network is a set of interdependent relationships in which people will want to help you and have the means to help you.  I can think of at least one person who will want to help you. Your mom.

I bet there are others who would be happy to help you: your dad, your siblings, your extended family, your neighbors growing up, your old coach, your favorite teachers from high school, your spiritual leader, your current professors, friends from the class that graduated above you, etc.

“But none of those people are doing things I’m interested in.”

Remember that networking is not just about who you know, but who *they* may know. Maybe your dad plays tennis with someone who studied the same thing you’re studying.  Your grandma’s friend from church just retired from being the head of a big company.  My boyfriend’s mom trains in kung fu with a woman who gave me great career advice (true story).

Yet all these people who would love to help you, may not know that you need them to, or how.  You have to tell them.

“So what do I ask for?  I don’t event know what kind of job I want.”

You don’t have to.  That’s why you need their help.  Besides, you’re not asking for a job.  You will be asking your network to put you in touch with people who can provide you with information, advice, and more people to contact. The goal is to have your network put you in touch with people with whom you have a 20-30 minute conversation, often called an “informational interview.”  These informational interviews are a way for you to learn about what options exist for you, and what it takes to get there.

“Ok. But I feel bad.  Why would someone want to take time out of their busy schedule to talk to me?”

Here’s the biggest secret about informational interviews: People love talking about themselves. They LOVE it.  Trust me.  I admit it.  I love talking about myself.  And wow, if talking about myself can *help* someone?  AWESOME.

I hope I’ve dispelled any mental blocks you’ve had about networking, because it’s time to get started.  Next post: How to write that letter asking for help.

What were you doing when time just flew by?

In the past year, I’ve made a habit of asking folks who seem to be contemplating their future:

What were you doing when time flew?  What were you doing last when you completely lost track of time, and when you finally did check the time, wish you had more to keeping doing what you were doing? 

I first encountered this set of questions in Professor Randy Haykin‘s class, Innovation, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship.  He was introducing us to the concept of flow, that sweet spot when we have the highest potential for creativity.

I like asking this set of questions because it feels easier to answer than the “What do I do with my life” question.  That’s because when time is flying, when you are in the flow, you are so fully immersed in what you are doing that you are unfettered by the usual thoughts and constructs that keep you unhappy.  (This is the exact same feeling described in my previous post here, except that it’s being prompted by something you’re doing instead of something external to you.)  And somehow by simply recalling that moment, you experience freedom from the pressing thoughts of shoulds, coulds, and imaginary boundaries that prevent you from answering the “life” question.

Ok, a couple of the instances when time flew were when I was making my Up Halloween costume and when I was creating clues for The Game.  But I didn’t go to business school to become a costume designer or clue writer.  How does this have anything to do with what I want to do as a career?

It might.  It might not.  But if you were so fully enjoying what you were doing that you lost track of time, it does point to a part of what to do with your life.

These things that I love doing don’t necessarily need to be how I make my living (although I am toying with the idea of being a full-service themed children’s birthday party planner, complete with invitations, decor, costume design, and cake decorating options).  I just need to make sure that I make time for them in my life.

Often our dilemma is that we think that by dedicating time to these pursuits that we love, we will have less time for the “more important” things in life, like work, our partner, our family, etc.  How could I possibly find the energy to do that on top of everything else I need to take care of?  That’s the magic of it.  It isn’t a zero-sum game.  In fact, dedicating time to these activities give us more energy at the end of the day, and re-energizes us for the other parts of our lives.

Think about it.  What do you LOVE doing?  What were you doing the last time you were really excited about what you were doing?  When were you last in your element or in the flow?  How did it feel?

Have you felt that way in the past week?  In the past month?  In the past year?

If not, I think you owe it to yourself to think about why not?

The pursuit of happiness is not what you think.

“There is nothing you have to do, get, or be in order to be happy.  Happiness is hard-wired into you.  You cannot *not* be happy, because it is your innate nature.”

These are the words of Srikumar Rao, who I went to see speak at an alumni event last week.  Six months after I concluded a year of inspiration and deep introspection, I was in need of a psychological tune-up.  I went to see Dr. Srikumar Rao, because I had heard great things about his previous talks and his course, Creativity and Personal Mastery.  Bald, smiling, Indian, and a Ph.D. in marketing, he is a guru for type-A personalities.

But if happiness is my innate nature, why am I not feeling it right now?

“You do not feel happy, because you have spent your entire life learning to be unhappy.”

Type-As are a skeptical set.  But how do you *know* that happiness is my innate state?

“How do I know?  Have you ever seen something so spectacular that it took you outside yourself to a place of great calm?”


In that moment I was back on the deck of the house I lived in during grad school, where I would lose myself in the beautiful view of the area I called home.

Grad school was the most hectic two years of my life.  It was the first time I found myself needing to manage my time all the way down to 15-minute increments.  Yet no matter how worried, stressed, or completely overwhelmed I felt, that view from our deck could always give me refuge.

“Why were you transported? Because, somehow, you were able to accept the universe exactly as it was. Your habitual wanting self dropped away, so you didn’t have to do anything to experience the happiness innate in you, it just rose up and enveloped you.  I know it exists, because you remember it.

“When you are unhappy, it is because you are rejecting the universe as it is.  And the universe is not playing ball.  It is beating you.”

It sure is.

I reflected on the moments when I’ve been less than happy.  Sometimes it’s because I am engulfed by not-so-pleasant mental chatter that is preventing me from connecting with the situation or people right in front of me.  Maybe I am replaying everything that went wrong.  Or I am obssessed with trying to shape the future into exactly the way I want it to be.

Thanks to some time off between graduation and re-entering the workforce, I had made strides in learning to quiet my mental chatter, and I’m going through exercises to tame my inner critic.  But it’s been an awful lot of work, and there are moments where I wonder whether I’m really capable of just being happy.

It dawned on me that I had this “pursuit of happiness” stuff all wrong.  When people coined this phrase, they didn’t mean “pursuit” in terms of  chasing something beyond me, but “pursuit” in terms of an activity which is always accessible and I’m regularly engaged in.  I just need to choose not to forget that it’s always with me.  And reminding myself of that is as easy as remembering a sunset.

What is a network, anyway?

When I was growing up, my dad wasn’t one to push me or give advice, unless it was his weekly reminder that he didn’t want to see me having babies until after I graduated from college.  I can only remember him giving me advice about college twice in my life.  The first time was in the first grade, when I brought home my first report card.  He looked at it and said, “Wow, good job!  Hey, maybe you should go to Stanford.  It’s a good school and it’s close to home. ” (Apparently this piece of advice really stuck with me.)

The second time was in high school, around sophomore year.  It went like this.

“Hey, maybe you should apply to USC.  I heard they have a good network.”

“What’s a network?”

“Ehhhh, I don’t know.  But they have a good one.”

That piece of advice also stuck with me.  In that moment, I may not have understood what a network was, but I did understand this: A good network is something you want to have.

But what exactly is a good network?

Wikipedia defines a “social network” as “a social structure made up of individuals (or organizations) called “nodes”, which are tied (connected) by one or more specific types of interdependency” (source)

That last word is a key part of what a network is: interdependency.  I think that some people are averse to networking because they think it’s all about what you can get out of relationships with people.  But developing a good network is building those interdependent links, or links in which both you and the other individual have something to exchange.

Let’s go back to the USC example, and alumni networks in general.  The reason why my university’s alumni network is so strong, is because we all have a stake in our network’s reputation.  Some alumni I’ve reached out to may help me out of the goodness of their hearts, but their other motive is that  if they help other alums become more successful, they improve the aggregate reputation of our alumni network and increase the value of being a part of that network.

Even in the most altruistic-seeming relationships, there is an exchange taking place.  I have mentored and coached a number of people.  I have given them advice, guidance, resources, and connections.  But they have given me something as well.  They have given me the satisfaction of feeling helpful, which makes me feel good.  In some cases, they also give me friendship, inspiration, and support.

A good network is one where you have numerous relationships in which the interdependency is strong enough, or the potential exchange of value is high enough, such that people will want to help you and have the means to help you.


But I don’t know what I want to do

“But I don’t know what I want to do.”

A couple weekends ago I was at my favorite restaurant for Pad Kee Mao (Lucky House Thai in Berkeley, if you wanted to know), trying to help a young undergrad shake the stress of her summer internship search.  I was offering advice about how to conduct a networked job search, when she alerted me to her bigger dilemma.

“I don’t think I’m passionate about anything.”

Passion can be an intimidating word.  As I once wrote in a craigslist post, being passionate about something “doesn’t have to be big like raising money to help some endangered animal that’s too lazy to screw to save their species (sorry, once went on a trip to Hong Kong and saw a couple pandas that were exactly that), but it can be as small as driving around San Francisco for forty minutes looking for a 24-hour Jack-In-The-Box because two tacos and a chicken sandwich sound so good at 2am that you absolutely must find them.”

So, what do you want to do?  It may seem like a very very big, almost unaswerable question, but it’s possible to find an answer.  Notice I say ‘AN’ answer, and not ‘THE’ answer.  THE answer may not exist, because it will always be changing.  Besides, Type-A super-achiever folks are often too obsessed with finding “THE” answer when “AN” answer will do just fine.

Here is the first exercise I did when I didn’t know how to answer that question.

 You will need: a big piece of paper and either colored pens or a bunch of post-its.

The post-it mind map I created while preparing to apply to business school

Step 1.  Prepare to make a list. Actually, a mind map.  Even better than that, a mind map of post-its if you have them, so that you can rearrange items as you notice patterns.

Step 2.  Write down all the things you have done or been in life. What if you haven’t done anything?  Untrue.  Don’t limit yourself to defined extra-curriculars, jobs, achievements, or the kind of stuff that you’d put on your resume.  No one has to see this list but you.  One thing that could go on my list is “obsessive list-maker.” Just think about how you spend your time.  Try to aim for 30 – 50 things.

Step 3.  Look at the list/mind map as a whole.  What things did you enjoy?  What things were you good at? (Note: Enjoying something and being good at something are two totally different things.  In college I hated Investment Science, but for some reason I was also good at it.)  What things did you hate?  What motivated you to do the things you did?  What prompted you to stop doing the things you don’t do any more? Do you see any patterns?  If you’ve written your list on post-its, start grouping things that seem to be related/similar.  If all of your things are on a single piece of paper, connect similar things with lines, or color-code them using different colored pens.

Here is a picture of the “Stuff I’ve Done” mind map I created for my Personal Innovation Project during business school.

Step 4.  Look at the groupings, and pick out themes you feel are important to have in your life.  It may still be a jumble of words, but those themes should give you a good start in thinking about what types of things you would like to do in the future.

Step 5.  Translate the themes into sentences starting with the words “I want to…”

Voila.  You have a list of things you want.  It will likely need to go through some iterations of refinement, but this is a good start.  Stay tuned for more exercises that will help you think about what you want and how you can work these things into your life.

Coming soon!

I just started this blog yesterday, but I’ve been thinking about it for a couple years, so already have a bunch of ideas for post topics.  For now, the list includes:

Finding Direction: exercises in how to figure out what you want to do and how your interests can translate into making a living

Getting/Creating your dream job: leveraging the network you have, developing your network, conducting informational interviews, following-up, pitching your own internship

Succeeding at your first job/ internship (for recent college grads): managing upward, structuring effective communication, useful Excel tips, taking control of your own professional development

Personal development: dealing with the voice in your head, facing fears, managing stress, finding courage to do what you love

Keep checking back, and let me know what else you might find helpful!

For Winnie

Sometime back in 2007, I was out on the balcony of Cheesecake Factory atop the Macy’s Union Square, eating an early dinner.  Sitting across from me was my mentee Winnie, who was a junior at UC Berkeley at the time, and a friend she had brought along.  Winnie had just landed a summer internship at a large cosmetics company.  I was giving her advice on how to structure succinct yet effective communications, something I had learned during my first job out of undergrad.

“Wow, that’s really helpful.  You should totally write a book on this stuff or something,” her friend said.

It’s now February 2011.  Winnie is still my mentee, but now also a good friend.  In the past four years, I feel like I’ve shared a lot of lessons I had picked up along the way with Winnie, and with many others younger than me.  It’s finally gotten to the point where I repeatedly find myself having the same conversation and providing advice on the same topics, so I guess it is time to write these things down somewhere.

I didn’t come up with any of this stuff on my own; much of what I’ll be writing here I learned from others who were kind enough to share their thoughts and wisdom with me.  This is simply a compilation of advice and guidance I have found useful in my life.  I hope some pieces of it can be helpful to you, too.

Here goes.  For Winnie.  And for you.