After The New York Times asked him to write an op-ed last year, entrepreneur and author Jason Fried took a minute to think back on the chain of events that brought him to that milestone. He follows a winding chain as far back as he remembers, nearly 20 years of seemingly unrelated events. Reaching the end of his memory (but not the chain), he notes:
“...when you look back on events, it’s pretty incredible how things come together. Nothing happens independently. Everything is tied to something before it. Sometimes the links are more obvious than others, but it’s healthy to take a few moments to reflect on how many things – and people – had to come together in order for another thing to happen. You just never know.”
Fried’s milestones, big and small, leading to the opportunity to write for the Times - how he met his co-founders at 37Signals, how he ended up on Groupon’s board, etc. - show two clear things: first, a relationship underlies the core of each event, and second, at the time he formed these relationships, he probably had no idea how it would benefit him going forward. Each progression is built on some connection Fried built over time, often many years, before being asked to write for the Times.
Jason Fried’s example underlines an important point for all of us: in business (including the business of law), we need to build relationships with interesting people without expecting anything in return. Experiences resulting from those relationships can lead over time to extraordinary opportunities that will not otherwise exist for you, no matter your qualifications. Although this advice is especially helpful early in your career, it applies at every stage. Finding and meeting interesting people is always good, and interesting people are more accessible than ever. I started emailing and meeting interesting people for coffee or by phone in earnest shortly after I went in-house from Big Law. I should have done it 10 years earlier. It has changed everything about my professional life.
In particular, we should take away two lessons from Fried’s story as we build extraordinary careers:
1. Build Relationships without Expectations
Learning to give first can be tough, and learning to give without expectation of it ever coming back takes much longer.
Relationships are built out of generosity. A true relationship, not a networking opportunity, exists to learn about and give to other people. I believe that meeting interesting people and listening will benefit every person who reads this article. This means that we need to stop talking about ourselves and listen: learn to the person’s story, work, problems and needs. It’s not important to think about whether the person is a “potential client,” a “potential collaborator” or a “potential boss.” Everyone you think is interesting is in some way one or more of these. But when you think about what a collaboration can look like before spending time together, you’re jumping ahead.
How do you identify and meet interesting people? It’s actually a lot easier than you think. Think industry, not profession. What companies or people are working on projects that are genuinely interesting to you? Be careful not to limit your list to people who do what you do. For example, if you’re a lawyer, it’s ok to include other lawyers but ensure at least half of the people on the list are non-lawyers. Get out of your professional echo chamber. If you’re having trouble identifying people, email me and I will help you.
Once you’ve identified who you want to meet, think about what you want to learn from them and if you can, how you can make their lives better. How can you help? Hint: It’s not by asking them to be your client so you can bill them for your time. You can make introductions, you might know something interesting about a subject you have in common, or you might recommend a good restaurant for an upcoming trip. It’s hard to pin down what that value will be, since it’s necessarily unique to the other person. Your goal should be to listen, learn about what the other person is up to and try to find ways to be valuable to them.
The book Give and Take, by Adam Grant, is a great primer on this. As Grant explains, people generally approach relationships in one of three ways: givers, matchers or takers. Essentially, “givers” contribute to others without expecting anything in return; “matchers” tend to see things as a quid pro quo; and “takers” are looking for primarily personal benefit. Ideally, you should approach every potential interaction with a new relationship with a “giver” mentality - you’re here to learn and help without expectation of any of that help “coming back around.” This isn’t easy to start; you may find yourself, at best, with a matcher mentality. That’s ok. Try it anyway. Learning to give first can be tough, and learning to give without expectation of it ever coming back takes much longer.
I’m often asked by junior lawyers and recent grads what they can possibly provide to someone senior to them. Here’s my answer: if a more experienced professional takes time to talk with you, they want you to follow up. They want to know that they helped you. The follow up is the value you add, at least initially. Over time, you may be able to do more.
Contacting interesting people you don’t know is easier than ever before, whether by email, interacting on their blog comments, LinkedIn or Twitter (which is quickly becoming my favorite). New York Times bestselling author, Ramit Sethi, details his system for contacting people in this post, although as long as your approach is brief, genuine, and thoughtful, you should get some response.
2. Breakout Opportunities Take Time to Develop
[I]ncremental changes, taken together, can be extraordinary...
Relationships are good for their own sake, and any opportunities that might come out of relationships can take years. It’s important to truly embrace this upfront. Expectations of immediate gain are not compatible with lasting relationships.
Meeting Scott Heiferman, co-founder of Meetup.com in 2001, did not itself put Jason Fried on the Groupon board in 2009. In fact, his timeline omits one very important, overarching activity that made most of the events post-1999 possible: he co-founded 37Signals, which has become a very successful company, and he leveraged that success into writing several books and for other publications. Clearly, the relationships he formed played a part in building that success. As the co-founder of a successful company with this meaningful relationship built over many years, Fried was both capable of handling the Groupon opportunity and he was actually presented with it, instead of another, highly qualified person. Breakout opportunities are available to highly qualified people with the relationships that make them available.
Most relationships will not lead to breakout opportunities. If they did, the opportunities wouldn’t be so extraordinary. However, relationships often do lead to incremental changes over time, whether it’s more information, a better perspective, or additional relationships you build through the first one. Those incremental changes, taken together, can be extraordinary too. And let’s not forget that meeting interesting people is fun - you get to spend time with and learn from people you admire and, especially if you’re meeting people in jobs different from yours, you can learn more about how other people see business issues from different perspectives. Just remember that it has nothing to do with looking for a client, a job or a side project now. Instead, you’re learning, meeting excellent people, and laying the groundwork to find extraordinary, interesting opportunities along the way.
If you like this article, follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Questions or comments? Please email me. I’ll respond to every one.
[Josh Beser is Assistant General Counsel at Lonza, a global leader in life sciences and specialty ingredients with over 10,000 employees worldwide. Previously, Josh was a corporate associate at Bingham McCutchen LLP and Heller Ehrman LLP, representing emerging companies in the technology and life sciences industries. Connect with Josh on Twitter and LinkedIn.]
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