Networking: Good vs. Evil

I wasn’t born rich or powerful enough to be initiated into the world of networking from an early age, so I always misunderstood it.  When I dropped out of high school and started getting my own jobs, I figured out quickly how to develop a good rapport with bosses and customers.  I was good at interviewing, and whenever I had a job (from the shittiest beginnings as a clerk in a video store, to managing a fine restaurant and running a freelance web design business), I threw myself into the work with a sense of duty and devotion that now seems a bit naïve.  But I learned a lot from even the simplest jobs, and I always assumed that when I advanced it was because I was competent— because I went out of my way to do the best job I could, and I put my whole mind and body into the work.  Every time I left a job, I left it with a glowing letter of recommendation and an enthusiastic reference, so it got easier and easier to get better and better jobs.

It was the same when I went back to school.  After a year in community college, I realized that a good Professor is everything in a class, so when I got into a four year school, I would always over-enroll myself and drop a couple of classes based on Professors.  I actually completely changed my undergraduate focus from Computer Science and Artificial Life to History and Religion during my first semester at college because I had Professors who made me passionate about the Humanities, and who seemed to exude this engaged, compelling expertise.

So, naturally, I hit it off with my Professors.  I worked hard in their classes the same way I worked hard in my jobs.  It was a hell of a lot more fun to have a “job” of reading hundreds of pages and thinking and writing about them than it had ever been to make hundreds of lattes for rich Orange County suburbanites.  Even the Professors with whom I had profound ideological disagreements respected me, and recommended my work because of my engagement and enthusiasm, and because I listened and learned as well as I could.

When it came time to apply to Grad School, then, I had more than enough Professors who were familiar with my work, who respected me, and who were eager to write letters of recommendation for me.  And this is what I always thought of as “networking.”  You work hard, you prove yourself, people who have similar goals and interests recognize that work, and they recommend you.  You go places.

But, this last year, I’ve seen a whole different side to networking, the evil twin that I never realized was there until I started working as a Lecturer in a college.  This last year, I was thrust unexpectedly into a world of nightmarish gossip, nepotism, and sycophants.  When people here heard that I was applying to Grad School, suddenly there were so many people I “had to meet.”  When I told people I was applying to Harvard, it was even worse.

“Oh, we just got a new Dean for Computer Science, you have to meet him.”

“Why?  Is he interested in social media?”

“No, I think he’s an engineer, but he went to MIT and I think you two would hit it off.”

“Oh, there’s this guy I play tennis with from Johns Hopkins, and he’s in charge of this Chinese studies program.  He’s writing letters for several of my friends.  He could probably write you a letter of recommendation.”

“But why?  I don’t know him, and I have never studied China.”

Slowly, I retreated more and more to my own office, filling my time as much as possible with student consultations, afraid that every casual lunch would be pirated and turned into an “opportunity” to network.  I established friendships with a few people who seemed completely disinterested in the administrative politics of the college and in positioning themselves for other opportunities.  I tried to focus on doing my job, on developing good curriculum, and quietly insisting on more consistent standards within my department.

But once I got into Harvard, things got worse.  Suddenly, people with totally unrelated research interests were giving me their email addresses, and the way they talked about their research was like it was a sales pitch.  They didn’t pause for me to express interest, to dig into details, to respond or reply.  They just talked themselves up and gave me an email address, without even really understanding what I was going to Harvard to do.

It creeped me out even more when, at a celebration dinner, an acquaintance of mine said, “It’s exciting.  It’s like we all got in to Harvard,” while he made a hand gesture to indicate a sort of reciprocity.  Another colleague of mine, a Harvard alum, tried explaining how political Harvard was, how I had better use my time in the Graduate School to network, how connections, and connections with the right people, were everything.

I’ve found myself growing increasingly tired of it; it all smacks so much of guanxi, the Chinese system of connections based solely on friendships, social class, and family relationships.  In China, you get your jobs because of who you know, not what you know— and while this is true to some extent in America, too, I was constantly surprised and appalled by guanxi‘s total blindness of competence.

But now I’m beginning to wonder if I ever understood networking at all.  Were the connections I made through hard work and devotion really “networking,” or was it something else entirely?  And is my experience with networking’s evil twin, here at my current college, is it an idiosyncrasy, an anomaly, a sign of desperation from a group of Western academics who, mostly, confess that they’re working for my college because they didn’t have anything going on back in the states?  Or does it have to do with relative spheres of power?  When I was working, back before I went to college, I was working difficult, practical jobs.  Charm doesn’t foam milk, or keep a restaurant in the black, or develop a website.  My Professors at my undergraduate schools are brilliant people, but they didn’t seem to be campaigning for high-powered positions; they seemed to be doing their work because they loved it.  Is it that, going to Harvard, I’m going to be entering a new world, with new rules of networking?

Whatever the case, whether it makes me naïve or stubborn, I am going to stick with my old way of doing things.  I’ll be happy if I make friends with people who can advance my career, but I’m not going to choose my relationships based on their ability to do that; I’m going to work hard in my classes, do original and innovative work wherever possible, and trust that the same forces that brought me to Harvard will take care of me at Harvard, and beyond. TC mark

image – Chensiyuan

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  • dan hoffman

    hate networking and networks and people. gonna watch return of the king now

    • Sean Li

      HAHA i'm watching “return of the king” right now too! The entire day was spent resting and watching the entire trilogy in Bluray.

      But yeah… my skills at networking (the evil twin definition) never flourished at a younger age and I am encountering similar realities in my present circumstance. When I was young, I just made friends and had adventures with them outside. Dammit, what gives?

  • Vincent Do

    I don't see how networking the “evil” way would keep you from working hard in your classes and doing excellent work. Yea, you shouldn't choose relationships solely on whether or not they can advance your career, but wouldn't it be wise to simply be more inclined to reach out to those do have that ability? For all you know, those same people could make great friends as well.

    • Christopher Michael Luna

      It's not that it would keep me from working hard in my classes. It's that I don't like the kind of connections it promotes. I feel bad if I advance because I have empty connections that are unrelated to who I am and what I do, maybe especially because I worked so hard just to get the opportunities that I have. I am very sociable, and I make friends with Professors based on my work, but whenever I see someone getting ahead because of a connection that's not about competence, I feel really rotten about all those people out there who don't “know the right people” but are doing great work.

      These connections have a real impact on how much you earn, whether you can get a job, and whether you advance. As long as these connections exist, a meritocracy is a far, far better system than one of nepotism and meaningless connections.

      Because, you know, competence matters. The extent to which connections which are not based on competence edge out people who are competent, it really hurts the system (whatever system) in which you network. It's like the last relic of aristocracy or something. It makes for inefficient, less competent systems and industries.

  • 43509734

    Wow, I'd be interested in reading about how you went from being a high school dropout, to going to community college, to being accepted to Harvard for graduate school! I feel that emptiness in superficial social relationships as well, I hate it.

    • Christopher Michael Luna

      I went to community college for a year, and then transfered to a four-year school. I blame my success on a combination of work ethic and a strong desire not to work at restaurants for the rest of my life. I mean, it was fun work, but I was running sixty hours a week and barely had time to read or think about anything, which was and is a very important part of my life.

      Lots of the people I went to school with had never had a job, so the expectations of a college life were pretty heavy. But I had worked a lot, and so the college work seemed easy (in terms of time commitment and gratification) comparatively.

      Also, I like to recommend my undergraduate school: Hampshire College. No majors, no grades, no tests, and you can take classes at five amazing colleges.

  • White Girl 101

    Fucking hate networking. Hate hate hate. It's all skeezy. When I lived in China, I could always tell who wanted to get to know me to practice their English or be associated with a foreigner and that never made me want to help them out. Fuck guan xi and fuck networking.

  • Vee

    I can't tell you how much I empathize, especially with “I wasn’t born rich or powerful enough to be initiated into the world of networking from an early age, so I always misunderstood it.”

    I was in a business fraternity as an undergraduate and I always got startled by the sheer frenzy with which some of my brothers networked. At some point, many of them substituted the word “friend” for “connection” and I honestly can't say that they seemed happier/more fulfilled for it.

  • Lem

    Yeah, I feel equally bitter about networking, but after several internships and attempting to get a job just out of undergrad college, I'm beginning to realize that it's a necessarily evil. Being competent is definitely important, but if nobody knows who you are – even superficially – it doesn't sound like you get anywhere. During one of my first internships, one of the only negative comments I got was that I wasn't sociable enough. At the time I was like “I'm doing well at all of the tasks they set me, why does this matter? Why is this supposedly part of my job?” The sad thing is that it really does matter. Right now I'm dealing with it by having a very strict system of compartmentalization between “real friends” and “work/networking.”

    About the guanxi thing, I don't know, I grew up in Hong Kong and I've always felt that my accomplishments always mattered more over there. In the US you have this constant pressure to talk a good talk, be charming, and toot your own horn, regardless of how good you actually are at what you do. It's really irritating.

    • Christopher Michael Luna

      Yeah, that's why I try to qualify myself in the last paragraph. Before, I was always so sure that the problems were all about China, all about guanxi, but now I don't think it's as simple as US vs. China (and Hong Kong is a very different beast than the People's Republic).

      I think it has to do with social class, and a ton of other things.

      • Poppie

        “Ca$h rules everything around me” – Karl Marx

      • Lem

        True, HK and the PRC are very different.

        I come from a lower-middle class background, too, so I found networking quite unfamiliar, as well.

      • Lem

        True, HK and the PRC are very different.

        I come from a lower-middle class background, too, so I found networking quite unfamiliar, as well.

  • Michael Koh

    h8 networx

  • Yulia

    I used to not be much of an academic type, I got good grades but I was never very enthusiastic or passionate about what I was studying to the point where I did just the bare minimum to get by. However, when I started working in a part-time job, I realized how lucky I was to be in school and how much harder I should be working at learning and getting the best out of my academic experiences. I still haven't quite understood networking yet, but I feel like being true and honest to yourself and your work ethic will show, and the people you see as friends are those who make the best “connections”, they understand and trust your capabilities. People who keep in contact with you just for the sake of networking won't really have your back, it's the difference of good connections vs. bad connections that really decide where your career path will lead to.
    This is a really good post, I just wrote all this but literally just realized most of it after I read your article.

    • Christopher Michael Luna

      I've always liked thinking and writing, but it's totally true that I didn't appreciate school until after working full time for seven years. I liked working, and I learned a lot from it, but I appreciated school– in spite of all the irrelevancies and bureaucratic inefficiencies– so much more after I had to support myself. And I was much better at it. Some times I think it would be good for most people to work for a year or two at least between High School and College.

  • Sundari

    I appreciate the heart of the article but this comes off in a very pedantic and infantile. Most people aren't fans of nepotism, it benefits a select few (duh). But stop writing like a 15 year old girl ranting on world peace and unicorns. Actually, I might appreciate the unicorn article.

    • mopey P

      Pedantic because he wants to teach us how awesome he is! It's cute how he is is like so, so proud of himself for slummin' it and going to community college for a year. I bet you the unicorns articles he's from the suburbs.

  • Sophia

    LOVED THIS ARTICLE SO MUCH. I feel like I could have written it, except I'm only an undergraduate freshman. Just being here in a university setting and getting invitations to “networking receptions” weirds me out. Why would anyone want to go to a reception to meet people knowing that they only want to know each other to use each other? It's sickening to me.

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  • waiit

    Reblogged this on Tobalá and commented:
    Black spot.
    I really like this post. I’ve always felt the same naïvety everytime I face the my own academic enviroment (wich is very far from Harvard, but not for that is so siffetent). Maybe it just happens tha some of us are too kind, or honest, or dumb or whatever to fix into politics.

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    Networking: Good vs. Evil | Thought Catalog

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