Friday, September 8, 2017

Is Networking Overrated?

This morning, I received my Friday email from the Association for Psychological Science, which includes links to media coverage of psychological science. The very first headline caught my eye: Good News for Young Strivers: Networking Is Overrated. As someone who dislikes networking, I was pleased to read in the first paragraph that many people find it distasteful - so distasteful that research shows people actually feel physically dirty after visualizing themselves networking. In fact, the column - written by Adam Grant, a professor at Wharton School - argues that networking doesn't help you accomplish great things. Rather, accomplishing great things helps you build a network:
Look at big breaks in entertainment. For George Lucas, a turning point was when Francis Ford Coppola hired him as a production assistant and went on to mentor him. Mr. Lucas didn’t schmooze his way into the relationship, though. As a film student he’d won first prize at a national festival and a scholarship to be an apprentice on a Warner Bros. film — he picked one of Mr. Coppola’s.

Networks help, of course. In a study of internet security start-ups, having a previous connection to an investor increased the odds of getting funded by that investor in the first year. But it was pretty much irrelevant afterward. Accomplishments were the dominant driver of who invested over time.
But as I got farther and farther along in the article, I couldn't help but think that he was making it sound too easy. I don't mean that working hard and being successful is easy. But it felt like he was brushing off all the people who lacked connections and the resources that some people are born into by saying, "Well, just be successful and the network will come to you." I couldn't completely figure out why I was so bothered by his article. Then he said this:
I don’t mean to suggest that success in any field is meritocratic. It’s dramatically easier to get credit for achievements and break into the elite if you’re male and white, your pedigree is full of fancy degrees and prestigious employers, you come from a family with wealth and connections, and you speak without a foreign accent. (Unless it’s a British accent, which has the uncanny ability to make you sound smart regardless of what words come out of your mouth.) But if you lack these status signals, it’s even more critical to produce a portfolio that proves your potential.
And that's when I realized what was bothering me. Sure, it's easy to say that if you don't have any of these privileged characteristics, you just need to work harder - something minorities and women have been hearing for a very long time. The problem is that 1) "success" and "achievement" are very subjective terms, and people may evaluate your achievements differently depending on your characteristics and 2) getting your achievements noticed also depends on your network. It's as though Professor Grant thinks there's a place where the powerful can go and peruse all the portfolios of young and successful people.

And sure, there are situations like that - his anecdote about George Lucas and the national festival is one place where you can go and see young people's work in the hopes of finding an up and coming director. But getting into film school, having the resources and training to create a product that gets attention, and then getting that attention from the judges are influenced by a person's background and privilege.

It feels as though Professor Grant is himself falling prey to the "myth of the self-made man." Anyone who says he (or she) is "self-made" is completely downplaying the influence of an environment conducive to success. Just like Donald Trump likes to downplay the financial help he received from his father to start his business.

In fact, here's a great example of how people evaluate success differently for young and hopeful entrepreneurs. Penelope Gazin and Kate Dwyer created a fake male cofounder to help launch their startup:
“When we were getting started, we were immediately faced with ‘Are you sure? Does this sound like a good idea?’,” says Dwyer. “I think because we’re young women, a lot of people looked at what we were doing like, ‘What a cute hobby!’ or ‘That’s a cute idea.'”

Regardless, the concept seems to be paying off. Witchsy, the alternative, curated marketplace for bizarre, culturally aware, and dark-humored art, celebrated its one-year anniversary this summer. The site, born out of frustration with the excessive clutter and limitations of bigger creative marketplaces like Etsy, peddles enamel pins, shirts, zines, art prints, handmade crafts and other wares from a stable of hand-selected artists. Witchsy eschews the “Live Laugh Love” vibe of knickknacks commonly found on sites like Etsy in favor of art that is at once darkly nihilistic and lightheartedly funny, ranging in spirit from fiercely feminist to obscene just for the fun of it.

After setting out to build Witchsy, it didn’t take long for them to notice a pattern: In many cases, the outside developers and graphic designers they enlisted to help often took a condescending tone over email. These collaborators, who were almost always male, were often short, slow to respond, and vaguely disrespectful in correspondence. In response to one request, a developer started an email with the words “Okay, girls…”

That’s when Gazin and Dwyer introduced a third cofounder: Keith Mann, an aptly named fictional character who could communicate with outsiders over email.

“It was like night and day,” says Dwyer. “It would take me days to get a response, but Keith could not only get a response and a status update, but also be asked if he wanted anything else or if there was anything else that Keith needed help with.”
It wasn't enough to have a good idea. It wasn't enough to prove they had the ability to execute it. It literally took emails with a man's name attached to get their business going. Success is never achieved in a vacuum, and even if it were, those characteristics Professor Grant highlights as making it "easier to get credit" can influence whether that vacuum is beneficent or hostile.

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