The worst mistake people make when networking

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.

38 replies
  1. Ann
    Ann says:

    As soon as I saw the title of this post, I thought to myself, “the big mistake is when people meet you and immediately (i.e. end of the first conversation) try to get you to give them referrals. That’s sales, not networking. Your hen networking person isn’t so great at networking. You are “Penelope” of the blog and great at helping folks find their best career (I know that because you write about it so convincingly in your blog). You would be a great person to do a favor for because then YOU would owe ME a favor!

  2. Karen
    Karen says:

    Hello Penelope,

    I looked through archives searching for data to back up what you said about the waiting list for high school students trying to work at hospitals. I didn’t find anything at all on this. Can you tell me where you got your information?

    Best, Karen

  3. Becca
    Becca says:

    Great post!

    As an aside check out the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute for your son. It’s a non-profit if Madison that is solely focused on teaching anyone interested about biology. It’s an amazing hands-on experience for kids and they have a youth apprenticeship program.

  4. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “The lab internship woman, who is now really just the rooster woman,” could also now be referred to as the wild hen chasing woman. Maybe she and her kids are still chasing them. It would be interesting to know how the transaction worked out or didn’t work out for her and her kids. If they were too wild and it didn’t work out, it may be a reason you never heard back.

  5. Judy
    Judy says:

    The worst is when someone assumes you want something in return, when really you’re just interested in knowing the person or fascinated by whatever it is they’re doing. When you meet someone new you have to earn their trust and I’m very guarded as it is. It’s hard to get me to trust anyone, much less a semi-stranger. If it isn’t done right, networking can be creepy.

  6. Summer
    Summer says:

    You’re either making deposits or making withdrawals! I used to feel like a phony when networking, but as long as you’re not constantly “making withdrawals” and approaching everyone with “what can you do for me” attitude I think networking and asking for help is a good thing. Great article Penelope.

  7. Bette
    Bette says:

    As someone who has gone out of her professional way to help hundreds of colleagues and their families — reviewing resumes, making introductions, writing letters of reference, calling friends on their behalf, asking various company HR folks for leads, and basically never giving up until I succeeded — I’ve always wondered when the tables would turn and someone (anyone) would go out of their way to help ME. It never happened. In fact, I now count this as a life lesson, hard earned.

    • Kate
      Kate says:

      Reply to Bette
      I’ll concede that you learned a life lesson but think of all the people you helped. Clearly you were good at it. Each success filled you up a little bit. Maybe not good for your career but great for your soul and the people you helped.

      • Bette
        Bette says:

        Reply to Kate! Thanks for reading my comment — but actually, the experience was a neutral for my career, good for the people I helped, and very bad for my psyche. I didn’t help others for any reason other than altruism and professional courtesy — and when that wasn’t reciprocated, I really had to stop and wonder about the people I surround myself with. Yes, I’m happy I helped so many colleagues and their family members — but yes, I’m also disillusioned.

        • Lenore Lambert
          Lenore Lambert says:

          Bette I’m not sure it’s true to say you were doing it totally altruistically, otherwise you wouldn’t be disappointed at the lack of reciprocity. Disappointment is always preceded by expectation. I think I hear an expectation of reciprocity there….which means you did expect something. That’s not a criticism, I just think it helps to be honest about it.

          • Bette
            Bette says:

            I disagree, Lenore. If I save someone’s life with CPR, I don’t do it thinking they’ll turn around and save mine later. But I do have an expectation that someone will. I invest in our shared humanity — and hope others will, too.

          • Lenore Lambert
            Lenore Lambert says:

            I’m only looking at what you’ve written, rather than going into hypotheticals. You said you’ve always wondered when someone would go out of their way to help you. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, I’m just suggesting it is a flag for looking at intentions. Perhaps you’ve been helping with the hope that some day what you’ve been sending around would come around….perfectly understandable. And I think finding friends who value generosity is not a bad learning from it. I do find though, that it helps reduce angst and feelings of injustice if we look really clearly at our intentions. It can take some deliberate work to see them in detail.

  8. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    I have a lot of interesting contacts in various industries, but I put years and years into developing those relationships to a point where we can exchange favors for eachother and it isn’t considered work at all. It’s just helping a friend and their kid and vice versa.

    By the way, I think rooster lady was pissed you gave her wild chickens and that is why she cut off contact. If you are still interested in nurturing that relationship, try getting together without wanting anything or send an email and ask if the chickens worked out ok for her.

  9. Stephenie
    Stephenie says:

    This paragraph said some really important things. “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.”

    I can’t explain the significance of this to me personally without a long story. So suffice it to say that this insight works both with people who you want to do business with that you might have hopes of friendship, and the reverse, when long time friends suddenly get targeted for business relationships.

  10. Penelope
    Penelope says:

    I’m hooked… total fan girl now. I’ve been back-reading for a while now and just love your thinking, and agree with this post (and the first commenter- they should have done you a favor so Madame Trunk would “owe them one”… silly lady. She got rid of her roosters but she didn’t think long term.

  11. Diane
    Diane says:

    I learned that networking works better if you listen to others, identify a problem you can help with, then offer your help. Likewise, your network will listen to you and find an opportunity to help you out. It’s not really about favors. In fact, the few people who actually called me for a favor, I found out real quick they were takers. Just takers. You don’t want to be that, right? Be a good listener. offers to help will flow both ways. That’s just the way it works. Love your blog!

  12. Erin Wetzel
    Erin Wetzel says:

    Myers Briggs comes in really handy when trying to figure out what “fun” means for different people, whether you’re going after business connections or personal ones.

    For example, an ENTJ would find business fun. So making tons of business connections is pretty synonymous with building relationships. An ENTJ wants to build something, make something, be practical.

    But, say, with an INFP, it’s important to know that there is some “pure” or “real” relationship beyond performance. To an INFP, random unexpected thoughtfulness or deep personal exchanges make one feel Truly Appreciated. That’s energizing.

    Each type is a little different. But everyone likes Amazon Gift Cards.

  13. Jude
    Jude says:

    Great reflection. Made me think and wonder if I’m being too nice – I’m not that ‘invested’ in anyone kids but I like to help people. I’m going to take lessons from the rooster lady.

  14. Windy
    Windy says:

    I feel like an INTJ with Asperger’s would benefit most from a good lesson in why and how to make friends anyway. He will find plenty of ways to make himself useful with his probably-brilliant brain. Making oneself likable is always the issue. (I think you’ve mentioned that before, in your job interview post.)

    I feel like your son will probably end up getting to know people and socializing and making connections – networking – through the Internet. It’s a great socializing hub for people with Asperger’s anyway, so I’d be surprised if he isn’t already doing that.

  15. Wild Mtn Man
    Wild Mtn Man says:

    Most networking events are little more than an opportunity to get acquainted, and so little comes from the encounter. Relationship building is not a one time event, but a series of engagements where trust and concern for the other person is developed, and can take years. Because of this, people rarely know enough about you to properly assist, and most attempts are simple of a token nature. I personally find the hype about networking misleading. The focus needs to be on working your immediate personal relationships.

  16. Erin
    Erin says:

    Work = Play when you’re doing the kind of work you’re meant to be doing. So, really, you will naturally gravitate towards the people you share common goals, interests and values with. And you’ll make cool things with them.

    Isn’t that what all the guest writers on your education blog are about?

  17. Gena
    Gena says:

    I hate when people call for a favor, spend half an hour “being so interested” in how I am and what’s going on, and then it comes… the BIG ASK.

  18. Lenore Lambert
    Lenore Lambert says:

    I’m so glad this post go to where it got to. From the beginning I was feeling uncomfortable with the whole scenario as it sounded inauthentic. There’s a quote I posted on a Facebook Page I run that says “if you’re helping someone and expecting something in return, you’re doing business, not kindness”.

    There are two important things here: mindfulness of intentions, and authenticity. If we’re being authentic, and our intentions are transactional, isn’t it better to either be up front about that, or if that doesn’t sit well with us, then to listen to that voice and not pursue it.

    I have a friend who’s offered several times to introduce my business to her employer. Each time I followed her up, she never did it. Then out of the blue I get a long-delayed reply to one of those emails asking me if I’d like her to send some info to the right person. In the same email was a request to spend 4 hours of my time trialling a new product she’d developed and giving her feedback on it. She has always been quite transactional in her attitude to helping. This was the icing on the cake. I decided not to forward information about my business, AND not to spend the 4+ hours helping her. I miss the business opportunity, but I retain my integrity.

    I don’t do deliberate ‘networking’ any more as I realised my intentions were always to build relationships that I could use later. Instead, I move in circles that I genuinely like moving in, with people I genuinely like taking an interest in, and where I can genuinely say I have no eye on the benefits I might accrue other than the sense of connection I receive from knowing these people.

    I have another ex-friend who’s a brilliant networker, who has perfected the art of ‘taking an interest’ in people. She just chooses to do that with people who are influential or decision makers for work that she wants. While that’s clever, I find that equally disingenuous.

  19. Erin
    Erin says:

    Maybe this is me being a terrible idealist, and maybe the world doesn’t really work like this, but I think on some level you have to just do what you love doing and throw yourself at it and people will gravitate towards you and want to join forces.

    Keeping track of every favor in your life in some sort of effort at achieving balance is small minded.

    Blow the concept of tit for tat out of the water by being so magnetic and working so hard and creating such good results that people WANT to help you.

  20. Lenore
    Lenore says:

    I think the lesson here is watch out for the users. Let me tell you I AM good at networking and you do NOT need to be friends with people so much as you need good friends with many connections OR once connecting with someone can leave a good impression. I know this is going to sound awful but as I said I consider myself really good at networking but had it been me I would’ve brought up the lab before trading the animals. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s the real world. She may have dodged it but then you’d know sooner than later. By the way like 15% of people are turned off by my straight shooting but more often than not it wasn’t meant to be anyway. You can’t please everyone. You can’t make deals with everyone. But I feel you learned the wrong lesson there.

  21. Lenore
    Lenore says:

    Also want to add this isn’t the dmv. Networking isn’t about hiring friends unless you’re doing a small favor for someone huge. I love your blog. It’s sweet and quirky and sometimes I don’t agree but it’s good reading anyway. But I wouldn’t help your son get a lab job. Because I don’t know HIM. I don’t know anything about him. That’s risky for me. I said no to Ivy League kids I didn’t know because I felt their lack of resourcefulness was a negative their resumes didn’t impress me and it just looks like I’m doing someone a favor. Your son may be awesome and hard working and even talented but he should know the person recommending him. Most higher level networking reflects on you. You try to set up meetings not just as favor to the person asking but you want it to benefit the person receiving. The people here should know you do NOT need networking to get a good job but there are fields where I view it as essential. Among these are higher Ed professor esp liberal arts, finance, working at very competitive firms in higher ranks in multiple professions, publishing, first time vc funding for pretty much anything to name some

  22. Judy
    Judy says:

    The rooster woman seems to have given your son two names of people to contact about a lab job. That is what you were looking for — some possible contacts who might be helpful. I’m sure she knows that there aren’t a lot of educationally-relevant volunteer jobs in a lab for younger kids. If they had given your son a job washing test tubes or organizing the lab supplies (which are the kinds of duties they might assign to a younger student), you would have written a post complaining about driving your son all the way to the U to wash test tubes and organize lab supplies.

  23. Dale
    Dale says:

    Women get those thousand dates without a goodnight kiss because all the books and magazines tell guys not to kiss a woman on the first date (at least in the 70s and 80s when I was dating)

  24. Yiling Wong
    Yiling Wong says:

    Loved this story! I only recently realized if I thought about networking as asking my actual friends about job-ish things (or non-job things that I think are interesting and maybe I could spend more time doing), I’d feel much less aversion to even thinking the word, ‘networking,’ but your story captures the idea more clearly. Lucky rooster.

  25. Vera
    Vera says:

    Hi Penelope, I just recently discovered your blog and totally love it! Except you’re ruining my day because instead of creating myself, I find myself digging deeper and deeper into your posts and reading on :)

    Oh, networking – it’s almost never easy. I can relate as being on both sides – asking for favors and delivering them. Honestly, probably asked more often than was asked. But it truly is tricky, if it’s someone you don’t quite know to put a word for him. I discovered this the hard way myself when recommending someone who was my customer for awhile, (and I thought I could read people well). He always impressed me with his work ethic and enthusiastic nature, the way he dealt with people – for a job at my own company. When you think about it, it’s like seeing someone for an hour date. They can put the best face on for a little time, you’re gone soon.

    I did put some serious weight behind my recommendation, saying how I work with him for 2 years and how impressive he is in the management position – only to find out few months later that he was gambler and drug addict, with multiple personalities and it brought few tough moments for my company before they got rid of him. Thank God it didn’t threaten my own job but I was quite embarrassed. After that, I was obviously very careful who I may recommend or do favor for again.

    It also reminded me of kind favor one influential gentleman did for me (opening few doors for me when I was looking for a change of career) and then expected a “different kind of favors” in return. I must add, it’s been few years back. Today it would probably feel much more flattering…. just to finish on lighter note.

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