Networking: the necessary career evil. It conjures up visions of a crowded room of professionals adorned with name tags and holding glasses of wine. In huddles people exchange business cards and share what they do.

This is the default idea of networking, but it is so much more than this. By finding and establishing meaningful, lasting, and mutually beneficial connections, it starts and advances careers. It is all about the follow-up and follow-through: the email, the coffee date, the face-to-face time.

We set roadblocks for ourselves when we think about networking as a one-off situation that does not go beneath the surface. In reality, networking is like any good relationship — it requires nurturing and grows over time. Think of it as meeting a new friend or date.

What if we reframe what networking means and separate it from the vision of a forced, formal scenario? Consider the following five ways to think about the true meaning of networking.

Networking is Meeting New People, Anywhere.
Find the people who will vouch for you and advocate for them in return. Start with those already right in front of you at your school, in your workplace, or in your community. This is the easiest way to build a meaningful connection. 

Ask a colleague to coffee, even if you do not work with them. Learn about what they do and how they got to where they are — and really listen to their stories and experiences. Everyone can do this, no matter your level of seniority. This is how I’ve met and maintained strong relationships with some of my closest connections. It may start as surface-level conversation, but it evolves. 

Networking is Testing the Waters.
I always ask myself, “Would I spend time with this person outside of this circumstance? Could I be friends with them?” With this mindset I have established many relationships with connections-turned-friends I know I can count on, and vice versa.  

It is all about finding the right fit. If you feel like someone is squeezing you in, not truly interested in you, or you are just not meshing well, do not force it. Take the experience for what it is; send a thank-you note for their time with a takeaway from the conversation, and move on. 

Networking is Sharing Knowledge.
One of the greatest benefits of networking is sharing ideas. As you learn about someone and their career path, you pick up on nuggets about their journey that you can apply to your own life — and you are able to provide the same in return.

For example, my supervisor at my first internship told me that when she was an intern, she would make a list of everyone in the office and ask for 10 minutes of their time. I took her advice and was able to meet many new people. Doing this even unintentionally opened the door to my next internship. 

Networking Establishes Mutually Beneficial, Enjoyable Relationships.
Networking is fun — yes, really! From going out to coffee or dinner to finding pockets of time to catch up, the lines start to blur between professional connection and friend. That does not happen with every single connection that you have, but when it does, it is magic.

If someone takes you out, return the favor. If they help you with your resume, send them a thank-you note and offer dinner the next time you see them. If they need help filling a position, think about those in your own network who might fit the bill. Networking is a two-way street. 

Networking Should Never Stop.
Make sure to check in periodically and keep your relationships alive. Do not let it come down to desperation for a new job in order to connect with others. That is when the tired idea of networking materializes and it feels like a job in and of itself. Plus, in those instances, it is not about establishing a mutually beneficial relationship. 

The right people will help you in any way they can, but more often than not these are the people with whom you already had a relationship in the first place. Keep reaching out and meeting new people on a continual basis. Make a point once a month to check in with someone. It is the only way to maintain a true network and have inspiring, trusting people across career levels and industries in your corner. 

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