One of the most frustrating things about networking is figuring out how to do it when you’re just not in the mood. You’ve had a bad day or a whirlwind week, or you’re feeling any kind of down on yourself—lost, confused, conflicted, unsure, nervous, anxious, depressed. In those moments, the last thing I want to do is show up to that networking happy hour and schmooze, or, worse, make it to that one-on-one coffee catch up.
Sometimes those negative feelings are tied to a specific business or career result—you lost out on a project to a competitor or you didn't land that job you'd been interviewing for. Sometimes the source is less tangible—not enough sleep, turbulent times of year, troubles in your personal life seeping into your professional life. No matter how you get there, once you're caught up in that spiral of bad feelings, it can be tough to drag yourself out.
Because I love what I do, I often find that working helps. As a solo freelancer, I don't have to be in a good mood to get my job done and if I can get myself to my desk with a project in front of me, doing the work usually lifts me out of my funk, if only for a short while.
But what about when getting the work done involves interacting with other people?
Sure, sometimes you can reschedule that coffee for another day. Sometimes you can get away with asking questions, steering the conversation towards the person across the table. But not always, and even when these deflections do work, they're only temporary. Eventually you're going to have to show up to the meeting. You're going to have to answer a question or two about what's going on in your life and why you’ve been so cagey.
So you go to the networking event, feeling how you feel. Some people take on a “fake it ‘til you make it” approach, requiring you to act like you don't feel how you feel. You pretend you feel like a million bucks and make it your goal to sell the room on the fantasy. “Fake it 'til you make it" banks on the idea that while you're working the room pretending to feel how you wish you felt or pretending to be who you wish you were, you might even fool yourself.
To me, that just sounds like a lie.
Even if there's a baseline of "fake it 'til you make it" in that you probably shouldn't show up to a networking event with tears streaming down your face, there's also a lot of rich middle ground between falling apart in a professional setting and pretending to be something you’re not.
A couple of months ago, I was scheduled to meet a young designer for coffee on the Lower East Side. She was fresh out of school and looking for full-time work, with the added pressure of finding visa sponsorship so she could stay in the US. A ticking clock.
At the time, I was feeling confused about my own path. I had just started a few new projects that I wasn't sure of yet, I was chasing down a significant overdue payment from an ex-client, and I was hunting for a new place to live since I'd decided not to renew the lease on my Brooklyn apartment. My own ticking clock. I was feeling unconfident and unsure, swirling in the kind of freelancer panic that inspires obsessive earnings calculations and an hourly refresh of the business account figures.
How was I going to talk to this person, let alone help her?
Instead of pretending I had all the answers, I took an approach rooted in that middle ground. When conversation made its way back around to my side of the table, I didn't hide my concerns or my fears, my stresses about my situation at the time, or my dreams for the near and distant future. I didn't complain or place blame (my client still hasn't paid me and all my problems are their fault!) and I didn't focus on the negative, either. I just shared my own vulnerability and opened up about the gap between where I found myself and where I wanted to be.
Getting to that one-on-one in the first place required making myself a solemn promise: all I had to do was show up. I would be myself, be open and honest wherever the conversation might take us, but I didn't have to pretend to be anything I wasn't. I didn't have to convince either of us that I had it all figured out, and I didn't have to find her a job with a sponsorship package to call the meeting a success.
I promised myself that if I showed up and shared my journey that would be enough.
Somewhere in my open and authentic sharing, the young designer found her own comfort. She told me that hearing about someone else's winding road made her feel a little less like an outlier, that a lot of my concerns were her concerns, my fears were her fears, and my hopes and dreams and plans were starting to look familiar to her too. I got a little external perspective, she got a confidence boost. I got a reality check, she got acceptance. We both got vulnerable and that vulnerability connected us.
"Just show up" is a portable strategy. I've done it at one-on-ones, I've done it at free-for-all style networking events. I'm in the room in the first place because I believe I have something to offer, and whatever my own internal anxieties might say about my bank account or my career or my future, at some point in the not so distant past, I was excited about being here. I bought the ticket, I put that coffee catch up in the calendar.
How do you talk about your work when you're not excited about your work?
You remember what excited you about the work in the first place. You don't have to pretend that you're there again, honeymooning with your business idea or brand new project, you don't have to fake it, you just have to take the memory of that original excitement along with you, right there next to the nerves and the fears and the bad day baggage.
If you show up faking it, and you can't fake it forever because you're only human, what's going to happen when you get that job or win that client and your new team discovers that the person they were excited to meet at the networking event isn't the same person walking into the office every morning? If you show up like the authentic expression of who you are, no matter what happens in the end, the result will be meaningful.
Win or lose, authenticity counts.
If you don't get the job or land the gig or make that lasting connection, you'll know that you were open and honest about who you are and what you have to offer, which is as good a version of giving it your all as any. Being able to sleep through the night because you showed up in the world as authentic isn't nothing, by the way. Anyone who's ever battled the doubt-filled insomnia of should'ves and would'ves and endless replays of unsuccessful conversations knows that all too well.
And if you do get the job or land the client, you'll have won with all your cards on the table. Both you and your new boss or new client or new networking contact—whoever sits across the table—will know what you're getting into in a business relationship. You'll know how to relate to each other, how to support each other and cause each other’s success, and you’ll have a foundation of connectedness that simply isn't possible if you're faking it to get what you want.