“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.” – African Proverb
Many view networking as inauthentic, manipulative, and even dirty. Nothing could be further from the truth. We invite readers to think beyond the traditional limitations of networking. Traditional networking is viewed as a predatory and necessary evil; however, we urge readers to consider networking as an activity to develop common interests, learn from others, and connect to a higher purpose in a collective and human sense (e.g., improving the quality and safety of patient care).
The current pandemic has brought to the forefront our basic need to feel connected to others. In fact, we are built for this; when humans do something for another person (prosocial act), we experience an increase in dopamine and oxytocin. We are so strongly wired to help one another, and enjoy such enormous social benefits from doing so, that we even risk our lives for complete strangers. While reading the traditional networking books, I (SN) came to realize that networking isn't complex. It's about giving. It's about connecting with something bigger than ourselves.
David Brooks theorizes that in the 1960s, the concept of individualism was propagated as a response to dogma, political oppression, injustice, prejudice, and the need for group conformity (The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life. 2019). The new ethos became “I'm free to be myself,” but now this individualism has reached the extreme we have found ourselves in – maximally free and minimally connected.
The effects of this individualism and isolation can be felt in our daily lives, in our community, and in our work. Extreme individualism has led to many social crises, the most pressing of which is the loneliness crisis. Since 1999, U.S. suicide rates have risen by 30%. More important, suicide rates for those aged 10-17 rose by 70% between 2006 and 2016. Recently, the CDC announced that the life span of the average American had declined for the third consecutive year. The last time that happened was during a world war and a flu pandemic. The CDC attributes this reduction in lifespan to deaths of despair: suicide, drug overdose, and liver failure from alcoholism. Over time, extreme individualism has left people so craving a sense of belonging that they have gravitated toward tribalism. Tribalism may give the sense of belonging and community, but it is actually eroding society and our connections with one another. It promotes an “us” versus “them” attitude. While community is connection based on mutual respect and commonality, tribalism is connection based on contempt for the “other.”
True community building and connection have such tremendous benefits for us within our communities and in our work. The reasons for connecting go beyond attaining that next promotion, leadership position, or more lucrative job. Building meaningful connections keeps us happy and healthy; as demonstrated by the world's longest study of adult life by Harvard. Social isolation and loneliness have a greater impact on mortality than obesity, and lacking social connections carries a risk similar to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.
Our connections and commitments give us a sense of purpose. A 2007 Gallup poll asked people around the world whether they felt they were leading meaningful lives. Liberians scored the highest, while people from the Netherlands scored the lowest. In Liberia, the turmoil and difficulty of their everyday lives require them to make deep commitments to survive. Humans tolerate hardship – what they don't tolerate is a lack of connection and purpose.
When I think about a time I felt the most connected to my colleagues and to my work, I recall my residency days taking care of trauma patients as a team. Those could be terrifying yet also sometimes the best experiences. It's not that I enjoy seeing the destruction that humans can wreak on one another; rather, those moments represented times when we were so connected as a team that we almost seemed to be one organism. We moved with purpose, and we knew we had to cooperate to the utmost to save the human being we were privileged to care for.
Mentors can help us make the transition from those intense residency days to our career jobs by reminding us of the need to continue making strong connections, even when there is no urgency or crisis. Strong networks have been shown to increase on-the-job happiness and build moral character. “Character emerges from our commitments. If you want to inculcate character in someone else, teach them how to form commitments ... commitments are the school for moral formation” (The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life. 2019). We don't need to read five books on networking. We just need to remember the joy of helping others; then, connections can happen naturally and gift you with a robust network that you can look to in difficult times. Be intentional. To truly connect, instead of just networking, don't focus on what you can get from the other person or how they can be useful to you. Instead, focus on how you can be of service to the person and be genuinely interested in their needs.
Networking is as simple as listening with a sense of curiosity and generosity. Curiosity is the driver. Pretend it is your job to know as much as possible about the people you work with. Ask open-ended questions, be generous with your time and spirit, and take pleasure in giving. When you do for other people without asking for anything in return, you build good will at an accelerated pace. Possible ways to build generosity into your life include: setting a weekly goal to do something for someone in your network, meeting one new person, and understanding that person's needs well enough to know how to help that person if the opportunity arises (Super Connector. 2018; The Connector's Advantage: Mindsets to Grow Your Influence and Impact. 2019).
At some point, you will need to reach out to your network or connections when you need help. Asking for help is an act of generosity. It feels good when someone asks for your help, and you asking for help gives someone else the opportunity to feel useful. Personal connections whom you can reach to in times of need are ones that go beyond simple chatter, email, and social media links or likes. They are built on taking responsibility for your peers and colleagues (Super Connector. 2018; The Connector's Advantage: Mindsets to Grow Your Influence and Impact. 2019).
In his book Tribe, Junger tells the story of when he was young and decided to hitchhike across America to find himself. One day as he was standing on the side of a highway, he saw what looked to be a homeless, disheveled man walking toward him. His immediate reaction was fear. The man approached him and asked him where he was headed. Junger told him, “California.” Next the man asked him how much food he had in his pack. Junger assumed the man intended to rob him, so he said, “I just got a little cheese.” The man then proceeded to hand Junger his own lunch bag and told him, “You can't get to California on just a little cheese.” This experience stuck with Junger for years. He describes his feelings in his book: “Lots of people are generous; what made him different was the fact that he'd taken responsibility for me. He'd spotted me from town and walked half a mile out a highway to make sure I was okay” (Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. 2016).
I challenge us to be brave enough to truly connect with our colleagues and take responsibility for them, as that man did for Junger, to make commitments to each other, our patients, our professional societies, our vocation, and the future members of our vocation. Most important, let's remember that building relationships won't happen overnight. Be patient with yourself and others, patient to find similarities, build relationships, trust and create familiarity. But be persistent in your efforts, because connection truly matters. Connect with purpose. Not with the purpose to receive from others, but rather with the purpose to connect, give, and grow your community.