You’ve heard the axiom, “You’re only as good as your network,” but how do you get one? It used to be that a network was a Rolodex: A flip-book full of beer-stained business cards collected at an industry brew-ha. Today, your network is the people you truly connect with, and their friends.

Isabella Tsao understands networking. She is an information technology project manager, who enjoys salsa dancing. With the ten or so dance partners she has each night, there is an immediate connection, and there is no pressure to engage in small talk. Tsao says that “you make friends in a wide variety of fields and you get a different perspective.”

Keith Ferrazzi, coauthor of the book, Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time, says you cannot get anywhere alone. “Everything you’ve achieved has been done with the help of other people “? parents, teachers, friends, family,” he says. For those people who think networking is for the obsequious and desperate, he advises, “they need to give up their ridiculous sense of John Wayne rugged individualism.”

When Ferrazzi talks about networking, he talks about being liked. If people like you, they will help you, so instead of concentrating on getting favors, focus on being likeable. Otherwise, he said to me, “you’ll wake up when you’re 40 years old in a cube and upset that a 30-year-old is your boss. And you’ll say to yourself that the person got the job because the boss likes him better. And the answer will be, right.”

How does one become likable? Ferrazzi recommends you project yourself as confident, interested, experienced, and excited. But ultimately, you need to create a connection. To this end, share your passions so the other person will feel comfortable sharing his.

After you’ve established positive rapport, share your struggles and the person will share his; the more you understand about someone the better you can connect.

It is not your immediate friends, though, who will be the most helpful to you in a crunch. It’s your friends’ friends. Ethan Watters, author of Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family and Commitment, told me that when you have a difficult problem to solve, like finding a job in a new city, the group of people you know has the same information. “But the people just outside this network are the most helpful: It is the strength of weak ties,” he says.

The current generation intuitively understands this lesson, hence the rip-roaring success of Rolodex-replacing online services like LinkedIn, MySpace and Instant Messenger’s Buddy List.

These community-building tools seem more like ways to keep track of friends rather than to get a job. But in fact, for tech-savvy generations streaming into the workforce, networks of friends are not distinct from networks of career helpers.

Says Watters, “This generation doesn’t make distinctions like ‘we’re friends outside of work.’ Friendship ties are mixed up in all aspects of life.

Asking a friend to recommend you to an organization for a job is like asking a friend to move a couch.” So many of you have a wider network and more effective skills than you even realized.

And now, the inevitable question: “What if I’m shy?” The good news is that shy people aren’t bad at networking, they are just obsessed with what they sound like.

Bernardo Carducci, professor of psychology and director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast, told me, “Shy people need to be more other-focused and less self-focused. Think about what you can do for the other person. Shy people worry that their opening comment will not be smart enough or witty enough, so they never get started. Instead, remember that when initiating contact you don’t need to be brilliant, you just need to be nice.”