A fellow author mentioned to me that part of what drove his book to become a best-seller was mustering the courage to pitch it to Ariana Huffington while he was sitting next to her at a dinner party.
While I’m certainly of the “if you don’t ask, you don’t get” mindset, I’ve yet to find myself in a situation where I could casually say, “Can you please pass the pepper, Ms. Huffington? Oh, and let me tell you about my book.”
As we’ve seen with many “self-made” success cases, if you’re starting on third base, making it across home plate is much easier than if you’re starting in the dugout (and even being in the dugout is a huge advantage for many).
Most already know networking opens the door to new opportunities that would not be available otherwise. However, while it’s easy to say, “just network,” the difficult truth is that access isn’t universal.
That doesn’t mean we should give up. I believe next-level access can be attained over time, with consistent actions, engaging in our best work, taking risks and building a platform of achievements at each step to catapult us to the next level, and then the next.
Our goals are often more attainable than we believe. The challenge is, there usually isn’t an easy, quick or straightforward path, so we end up using our energy to judge, blame, criticize and complain rather than to take risks, innovate, connect and invest. I know, because I’ve done it myself, and can tell you the pity-party strategy doesn’t work.
As a first-generation college student who barely got accepted to a local university and commuted to campus five days each week while working at the town mall on weekends and school breaks, I was envious of the students who were able to afford to live on campus. I often felt out of my league, confused about how the process worked and lost at where to find help (I never even heard of a career center until years later and my campus apparently had four).
Even the world’s most popular networking site admitted that access is a problem. During a keynote last Fall, Jeff Weiner acknowledged LinkedIn’s algorithms have unintentionally supported the trend of a “network gap” – the tendency for those who come from affluent neighborhoods, attend elite schools and work at top employers to enjoy more opportunities and be twice as likely to have strong networks than those who did not.
While changes are afoot at LinkedIn, the problem certainly extends way beyond social media platforms, and is rooted in decades of systemic challenges. For example, 85% of 18 to 24-year olds with a parent in the household who had a bachelor’s degree were likely to reach college compared to only about 30% whose parents did not graduate from high school.
So, in terms of networking, it’s clear – some people have major advantages, others have serious disadvantages, and many of us fall somewhere on the continuum in between. But if networks truly are the key to more opportunities, we can accept certain realities and push forward anyway. Here’s what I’ve learned along the journey (often the hard way):
Everyone starts on a different rung. No, this isn’t fair, but yes, it is reality. And while we should absolutely continue to fight for more equality, these systems are deeply rooted and will continue to hold us back unless we proactively build creative ways around them. The good news is we can do both – campaign to change the systems while also finding the side doors to press forward in our own careers.
Each step up feels equally as confusing and scary. Impostor Syndrome is real, and you’ll likely feel it at each new level of access, so it’s important to make peace with it. Discomfort in new situations is common, but don’t allow it to stop you. In fact, why not reframe it? When you feel a little out of your league, recognize you’ve reached the next level of access and embrace your success.
No one will push you. When baby birds are ready to fly, their mothers shove them out of the nest. If they won’t take the leap, she’ll engage crafty tactics like withholding food to force them to spread their wings and recognize their amazing capacity for flight. Humans aren’t usually so lucky. While we may get some encouragement as children, once we’re adults, it’s up to us to drive our own success and find that which enables us to fly in the world.
You have to suck it up sometimes. This is a tough lesson, but as you’re climbing the ladder, you need to be willing to be the last minute backup, volunteer without pay (for a time – know when enough is enough and which events will be worth it), make compromises on your expectations or creative vision, do a lot of grunt work and earn your stripes.
Rejection is guaranteed. It’s rare I talk about anything being “guaranteed” in the career world, but rejection is a sure thing, and it usually isn’t gracefully handled. I had a guest on my radio show, and subsequently requested to be a guest on his podcast (if you don’t ask, you don’t get, right?). He told me, “no, you’re not well-known enough” (and sometimes you ask and still don’t get). I’ve been told I wasn’t “X” enough a lot. That doesn’t mean I divert my energy into becoming more “X,” but rather revisit my goal and assess if that advice will actually help me to achieve it.
On that note, it’s helpful to have a plan. You’ll be more successful in anything if you have a strategy and build a roadmap for getting there. For gaining next-level access, reverse engineer the process to attain your goal. For example, research who is doing the types of roles or projects you’d like to be doing and learn how they got there. What stepping stones helped to build their competence and credibility? Who do they associate with? What brands or thought leaders do they follow or promote? What up and coming opportunities can help you to gain experience in these areas? Most who write for Time Magazine have first been thoroughly published in several local and regional publications.
You’ll get envious. Comparing yourself to others who you deem to be more successful is a one-way trip to demoralization land. Yes, it can be motivating to have role models, but often we’re not privy to their struggles and challenges along the way. Jealousy is a normal human emotion, but instead of allowing it to bring you down, recognize there is a quality or ability you’d like to improve in yourself and put your energy there instead, with one caveat: to be the best YOU that you can be (as the saying goes, everyone else is already taken).
Sacrifices are par for the course. People who’ve made it will tell you rest, self-care and balance are important (and they are), but they also know that’s not what got them there. Of course once you “make” it, those luxuries are more available, but right now (depending on your specific goals) recognize you may need to sacrifice sleep, skip social events with friends (sometimes to attend social events with strangers), invest money to earn credentials or travel to where the action is happening, and work multiple jobs to pay the bills or gain experience.
What worked for someone else, may not work for you. You need to carve your own path. For some, writing one book, doing a Ted Talk, appearing on TV or posting a controversial article or well-timed video was all it took to go viral (likely not, but it may seem that way). Usually, it’s difficult to leap ahead based on one achievement, although there are the lucky few who find themselves in the right place at the right time. However, most of us need to gain access one rung at a time, and our steady commitment to achieving new accomplishments is what usually opens the door to the next level.
Top-level access is given to some people from day one. But for the rest of us, we need to work for it one rung at a time. But don’t let the steep climb scare you. There is a wisdom, humility and appreciation that comes from starting at the bottom, which some will never earn or understand. And in many ways, those are worth much more than any material success.