Just before heading off to residency I was asked to be a part of a panel on demystifying the art of networking. And because I’ve always been very transparent about how much of my success (whatever that is) is owed to the help of others, it’s something I’m asked about often. Now that I’ve finally achieved those coveted extra letters after my name, I’ve been spending a lot of time reflecting on how I got here and figured it was about time to synthesize the highlights and put pen to paper (so-to-speak).
First and foremost, I want to emphasize that success doesn’t happen in isolation.
Let me repeat.
SUCCESS DOES NOT HAPPEN IN ISOLATION.
I don’t care how smart you are, how resourceful, how innovative or how determined. I don’t care how multi-faceted your skills are or how quickly you adapt to change or how effortlessly you navigate crisis. It takes a village. Period. Always. End of story.
The sooner you accept that, the easier things will be and the more people will like you.
Second, and this is a crucial one, networking isn’t just for some people, it’s for all people.
So often when I broach the topic to people who have come to me for career advice I hear, “Well, I don’t know anyone in my chosen career field, so networking isn’t for me” or “I don’t have any connections, so that’s out” and this is what I tell them:
I come from a family of no doctors. No nurses, no medical technicians, no healthcare workers of any kind. I went to a small liberal arts college for undergrad with a limited history of sending people to medical school. For the most part I didn’t really know any doctors. In fact, I didn’t even know I wanted to be a doctor until just a couple of years before I started medical school. And still, every single step that got me here was in some way related to networking.
I’m telling you this because I want you to know that you don’t have to be born into this network, you can create it for yourself. In fact, it’s better that way because then it’s your network and not someone else’s that’s been passively handed down to you.
I know some of you are mentally rolling your eyes at me right now and writing off what I’ve just said as some sort of privileged rare occurrence. But guess what, I am in no way, shape or form the most like-able person in this world. Seriously. I’m intense. Impatient. Hopelessly perfectionistic, unapologetically true to myself, and fiercely strong-willed. And I’m not being self-deprecating here, I’m being honest (self-awareness is my only super power). I’m sure I’ve rubbed more than a few people the wrong way, so don’t discount what I’m saying because you think I’m this charming (ha, I just audibly snorted as I typed that one) blonde white girl who’s had everything handed to her.
So, say it with me: “Networking isn’t just for some people, it’s for all people.” And your ability to connect with others is like any other skill that can be refined with practice, so get out there and do it, for goodness sakes.
Now for my third point, the caveat is: be willing to accept that these connections can come from anywhere.
Don’t write anyone off!
Move through life as if everyone has something to offer you–not in a taking-advantage-of-people-kind-of-way, just with the understanding that everyone has something to teach you. Because they do!
Let me give you an example. My first year of college, a philosophy course was part of the required curriculum for graduation (this was a liberal arts school remember). And because I was a close-minded, 17-year-old know-it-all, I’d already baselessly decided that I had no interest in the topic and was totally unenthused about taking the class. My professor was Dr. Elizabeth Jelinek and it wasn’t long before I fell in love with her and the subject too. True, I probably wasn’t going to become a philosophy professor or anything that would require me to match great philosophers with their respective theories, but this class and Dr. J (as I call her) had an infinite amount to teach me and fundamentally changed the way I now see this world. It was the perfect counterbalance to my innately black-and-white reductionistic scientific way of thinking. It sharpened my ability to think critically, loosened my attachment to the concrete, undermined my assumptions, taught me to question anything and everything and gave me one of my most treasured gifts–the ability to reflexively consider things from all points of view. Not only that, but Dr. J and I ended up working together in a philosophy of science course and co-authoring a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant proposal. She also helped me put together my medical school applications, has meticulously edited virtually every application or essay I’ve ever submitted, is one of the first people I consult before making any major career decisions and casually ended up connecting me with an old friend of hers who happened to be (wait for it)…the Vice Chair of Emergency Medicine (my chosen specialty) at Harvard (a program I was heavily considering for residency) as yet another mentor. What are the chances of that? I can’t make this stuff up, it’s just too good.
Not convinced yet? Here’s another example for good measure. I was randomly seated next to Dr. William Magee, the co-founder of Operation Smile (look it up), at a dinner I’m not even sure why I was invited to, resonated with his work, quickly realized I could learn a ton from him and asked if I could email him some questions about medical school. We got to talking and it turns out he was an alumni at my then first choice medical school, had been their commencement speaker a year prior and offered to reach out to the admissions department on my behalf. Excuse me, what? I could’ve almost pinched myself. And the thing is, he would’ve done that for anyone–it’s the kind of person he is, I’m just the only one who asked.
Most of the successful people I know also have stories like this and I’d argue that we’re not particularly lucky, we’re just awake. Well, we might be lucky, but it wouldn’t matter if we didn’t pay attention. Think about how many opportunities you could have passed up by prematurely closing your mind to their existence simply because they didn’t smack you square in the face (hint: they rarely do).
And finally, if you take away nothing else from this article, please remember this: people WANT to help you.
Human beings are inherently good. We love to share what we’re passionate about (seriously, get an athlete talking about their sport, a vegan talking about their consumption choices, a scientist talking about their research, a philanthropist talking about their nonprofit, a writer talking about their book, etc. and you’ll get more insight than you could ever hope for) and we have an intrinsic need to be needed and feel valued. Plus, it gives us a chance to pay the help we’ve been given forward, which always feels good. So ASK! What’ve you got to lose?
And when they do help you, as they most often will, don’t forget to thank them. Again and again and again. Thank them when they make time for you in the moment and thank them down the road each time you reach a milestone that you can in some way–no matter how large or small–trace back to the investment they made. It is SO important that we tell those we appreciate how much they mean to us.
I credit every bit of where I am today to this ability to make connections and bring people together and, even more importantly, to the many, many people who were receptive to my pursuits and who actively and willingly invested themselves in my future. I believe whole-heartedly that as human beings we need each other and that, when we recognize this, life becomes infinitely easier, more beautiful and more loving. One of the most intelligent things we can do as professionals and people in this world is to recognize our limitations, hold ourselves accountable and ask for help when we need it, because the magic happens in the spaces between what we think we know.
What have you experienced through networking? Share below!
PS. I’m so passionate about this that I’m going to begin offering career mentorship for those beginning to make their way down the long, dark magnificent and humbling hallway of medicine. If you’re a pre-med (actual or hopeful!) or medical student and looking for guidance, please feel free to send me an email–I’ll be taking on a maximum of four clients so that I can fully invest myself in helping you to achieve your goals. If you’re in the Northern California area this can be done in person (yay!) or if not we can bridge the geographical gap by video chatting. As Ram Dass says, “In the end, we’re all just walking each other home.”