I read that in Silicon Valley there’s a twelve-month waiting list to be a summer volunteer at the local hospitals. Because all the kids who want to go into STEM careers in their over-funded overachiever Silicon Valley schools are trying to stand out as great candidates for college by working with doctors and scientists.
So naturally I decided my son, who wants to be a biologist, should have some sort of differentiating job in a lab. I know a woman who runs a lab at University of Wisconsin, so I emailed her to ask if she could help. I don’t know her well, but her kids went to pre-school with my kids, and she reads my blog. Although hopefully she is not reading this particular post.
I made a point of telling my son that the way you get these lab positions is by knowing someone. “This is why you have to make friends with everyone,” I told him. “You never know when you’ll need help.” My son looked like he was maybe listening. So I kept going.
“There are two kinds of networks,” I told him, “people who are tactical who can help you right now, and people who are strategic who will help you in the future.” I tell him I’m going to find him my favorite article on this topic. “You can read the article instead of doing Spanish today,” I tell him.
He says, “Mom. I’m not paying you to coach me. I’m thinking of paying you to stop talking to me. Can you just focus on the lab job?”
We set up a new email address for my son that steers clear of misspelled Pokemon characters. “First impressions,” I told him. “That’s how people decide if they want to keep you in their circle of contacts — from their first impression of you.” He says he’d rather work with someone who has a video game character in their email address but he capitulates.
The woman who has the lab emailed two people at the medical school and then my son emailed one of them. They have a lab with animals and my son has lots of experience with animals, and while infecting mice with cancer is not really the same as rescuing baby goats, my son was able to write an email about his interests and his qualifications.
We do not hear back from the guys who have the lab opening. I hope they owe a favor to the woman who is sort of my friend. After too many days of waiting, I tell my son to write her another email. I tell him that “just checking to see if I had the right email address” is a good way to say why the hell isn’t this person answering my email.
Meanwhile, the woman has kids who have chickens in their backyard and they don’t like the roosters. This happens a lot. You can’t really buy baby chicks and not get roosters. Because you can’t sex an unhatched egg.
My husband says to tell them they should just kill the roosters because that’s what any farmer would do.
I tell him city people don’t kill their pets.
He laughs at the idea of a rooster as a pet.
The woman who is my lab connection wants us to trade our hens for their roosters.
My husband says only a city person would suggest that trade. “What does she think we will do with the roosters?”
“This is not about farming. This is about getting a lab internship.”
He catches three of our hens, which takes a while because they are not domesticated.
She puts the cage down on the grass on the porch. She says, “They look a little wild.” The little girls come over to look holding their very tame hens.
My husband takes their roosters.
The kids say goodbye to the roosters the way you say goodbye to a pet that’s going to a better home.
My husband says they’ll be fine. Then he takes them to our farm and kills them. You can’t have too many roosters in a chicken coop or they gang rape the hens. Really.
I come out to see the dead roosters and instead I see the farmer on the porch.
The rooster was so tame, the farmer couldn’t help but make a new friend. So he spared one rooster.
We never got the internship. The lab internship woman, who is now really just the rooster woman, disappeared from email conversation.
My son said, “It’s great that we took those roosters from her. Really good idea, mom.”
I said, “I did it so she’d help us. I wanted her to owe us a favor.”
He said, “Yah, now she has to return the favor of killing three roosters her kids loved.”
I thought I’d do such a good job getting a lab position for my son in Madison because it’s so much less competitive than Silicon Valley. I used to go to the Valley all the time for meetings with investors and other entrepreneurs, and you know what? I sucked at it. I never knew how to connect with people. It felt like 1000 first dates where no one even kissed goodnight: just nothing happening. I thought something should happen. I wanted someone to ask me for something so I could ask back. When an investor asked me to lunch, I thought immediately about what he could do for me.
The problem is that if you are thinking about how someone can help you, you’re not being real with that person. You can’t connect by trading favors. And if you are meeting someone to get help from them then you are not going to be able to form a real relationship with them.
Networking is about being friends with people. Not asking for favors. It’s why I never really got anything accomplished on my trips to Silicon Valley, and it’s why the rooster woman asked us to do a trade. She knew we weren’t really friends. She didn’t feel vested in helping me reach my goals.
A network is people who you are interesting with and interested in. It’s not about favors. Trading is a transaction, not a relationship. So we got a lesson in networking instead of a lab internship. And anyway, I think that might have been more valuable.