How Not to Build A Professional Network

Historically, life insurance, trust institutions and banks would publish monthly newsletters that would contain stodgy but factually useful advice. The Old Pennsylvania Trust’s 1938 Newsletter about losing weight suggested drinking nothing but water and eating one meal per day no later than 6:30 P.M. Rudimentary, yes, but also capturing the essence that weight loss is heavily reliant on the consumption of fewer calories.

Now, the social age has motivated the marketing departments of places like Northwestern Mutual to launch a “Redefining Retirement Series” in which they profiled a woman who quit her job after two years in the work force, titled “I Quit My Job at Facebook to Travel – And Expand My Professional Network”, with the article’s caption summary stating: “Here, one woman shares how she quit her job to travel the Middle East and Asia – while still using that time to network and grow her professional ties.”

It is always unfortunate to find an institution that once gave straightforward, conservative, stodgy advice replace such prescriptions with fashionable millennial nonsense.

In this article, Northwestern Mutual is purportedly giving us the example that you can quit your job, travel for a year in the name of “enhancing your professional network.” This is double, triple, quadruple heaping of absurdity, and the idea deserves ridicule.

When I was an elementary school, there was a fad saying that kids should be raised to participate in a “global work force” and one of the suggestions was that kids should be taught Chinese in order to engage with that country’s rising power. Eventually, reality reasserted itself, and the idea eventually tapered away.

Now, there is this idea that obtaining access to the cultures of other countries is the key to future career success. An important side-note is that I would not find these types of articles ghastly if the proponent was honest and said, “I got burned out. I have a bit of a slacker tendency. I want to enjoy life. I’m going on vacation, and hopefully, I’ll pick up the pieces when I get back, but if not, I’ll deal with the consequences.” But that is not the argument being offered.

Northwestern Mutual is endorsing a woman who writes “I [was] meeting with entrepreneurs, investors and tech leaders in Israel, Jordan, Turkey, and Dubai…I was investing in myself and growing my international network—not to mention creating a lifetime of memories…I consider this part of my year off to be like an informal MBA program.”

No, this is not an informal MBA program. It is “having lunch with people who have jobs.”

The reason why I take the time to point this out is not out of any personal grievance against Kinh DeMaree, the individual profiled in the piece who by her account found quick success while working at Facebook.

Instead, it is to point out that this type of advice is privately profaned in the households of the wealthy—upper-class families are not telling their kids to quit their jobs and travel in pursuit of an “informal MBA”, but they are not sharing with the public at large what they are telling their children either for the sake of competitive advantage or because they see no point in absorbing criticism like being called “elitist” or “out-of-touch” for expressing a viewpoint that is not shared by the dominant culture (you see this most frequently in the eye rolls and antipathy that arises anytime someone uses the phrase “personal responsibility”).

Generations ago, an institution like a life insurance company would publish a young adult newsletter that said you expand your professional network by identifying the task that you solve at work, showing up each day to do it, mastering the skill over time, and then developing the ability to articulate the acquired skills to others. Often, the more difficult and unpleasant the task that you accomplish, the greater the word will spread of your skill. You do it again and again, and each new person that learns of your competency will result in the creation of a “network” over time.

This is the latest iteration of the age-old tension between short-term desires and long-term accomplish. I am reminder of the great Samuel Johnson quote: “Great works are performed, not by strength, but by perseverance; yonder palace was raised by single stones, yet you see its height and spaciousness. He that shall walk with vigor three hours a day, will pass in seven years a space equal to the circumference of the globe.”

It is unfortunate that, out of a superficial desire to appeal to the 18-26 age bracket, otherwise responsible institutions are rolling out articles that tell the younger generation what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear. Quitting and running off isn’t the answer to long-term happiness or building a professional network. Fixating on a work-related skill, and doggedly getting better at it, is how you develop self-satisfaction and a network over time. I’d much prefer to be the wet blanket and deliver the news that hard work and perseverance can’t be sidestepped before any impressionable young person takes regrettable action that cannot easily be reversed.