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What’s More Important Than Your Job? Your Network

When I was headed off to my freshman year at Boston College, my Uncle Bob gave me this piece of advice: “Don’t make friends too quickly.” Bob, a priest and professor who had been teaching theology to freshman at the University of Scranton for decades, knew from freshmen. He knew if I scrambled to attach myself to the first people who came along, I’d regret it. Once the social cement of those first few months hardened, it got harder to get out — away from people you realized weren’t going to be worth the trouble. And he was right.

Today, we’re all on a new (virtual) campus, where people you call “contacts” run the gamut of those whose kids you know by name to others you’ve never even been in a room with. We’re all like freshmen, connecting like mad to anyone who will have us. But the advice remains the same and just as, if not more, valuable: Don’t make friends too quickly.

Why? Because your network is a big part of your net worth — that’s where your best connections, leads and even friendships will come from. And not just that: Your network is what you bring to the table. With great people in your court, you can take on almost anything. But without strong, qualified relationships, you go nowhere. This (American) idea that you do it all on your own? Bunk. Everywhere I’ve ever gone was possible because of someone else.

While it’s important to be open and willing to connect with new people all the time, be wary of leaping to connect folks you can’t vouch for. It’s tempting, in our friend-everyone Facebook culture, to think the bigger the network, the better, right? (Look at me! I know everybody!) That’s only true to a point. You can’t know everyone, and they can’t all know you. One strong referral is better than five weak ones.

I know how it goes: You meet someone out, a friend of a friend, and she’s in PR too and you should really connect, and she sends you a LinkedIn invite, and maybe you’ll have lunch at some point, and maybe you won’t. But would you hire someone, or are you going to refer someone — a client, a friend, a colleague — to someone you shared a beer with?

In a moment of generosity, you might want to — to show that you’re professional, courteous, generous, maybe even friend material. Maybe it’ll work out. She could be a gem, and you might send each other business for years to come. But you shouldn’t just hope. You should know. Everyone’s busy, but if you don’t take the time to really vet your own contacts, they’re not going to be worth all that much.

We talk about the shifting business landscape, how it’s become flattened, informalized. You have direct access to people through social media you never would have before. This doesn’t mean we’re all tight — in fact, what it means is that we’re ALL for hire. And we should all be under each other’s scrutiny, too. So when it comes to your personal network, guard it with your life. Because it is your life.

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