How To Connect With Inspiring People (Even When You Don't Feel Ready)

How to connect with inspiring people

Is the idea of networking intimidating? Natasha shares her simple approach to take the pressure off connecting with inspiring people and make them want to help you, no matter what stage of your shift you're at.

When Amanda's friend offered to introduce her to the head of a major architecture and design festival, she was thrilled. Finally, a chance to talk to someone who had really made it in her dream industry. But it wasn't long before the uncertainty began to creep in.

Why on earth would this woman agree to meet her? She'd love to make a career in the same industry, but why would that be of any interest to a busy, successful person? And besides, Amanda wasn't even clear about exactly what she wanted to do. Her ideas were all so vague. Images of stilted, uncomfortable conversations flooded her brain. What would she say? The thought of having someone like this on her side during her career change was amazing, but she just didn't feel ready yet...

Amanda (name changed) was taking part in our Career Change Launch Pad when this situation arose, and she e-mailed me with a request for advice. What should she do? Should she accept the introduction and meet this woman, or would she end up looking foolish?  

If you’re considering a career change, there’s no way around the fact that meeting new people – people who can get you access to a new area of work – is essential. But for so many of us, the whole process feels scary and fake.

Why is it so hard to have these kinds of conversations? And how do you make them genuinely worthwhile – to you and the person you're connecting with?

Remove your mask

From our earliest experiences of society, particularly the traditional education system, we’re taught to show people what we think they want. We learn to don a mask of acceptability. Fit in. Be good. Give people what they want. Don’t let people see your weaknesses. It’s a dangerous world out there – don’t let people see you’re anything less than perfectly in control. 

So when we’re faced with a person who has access to something that we want, our taught instinct is to try to be who we think they want us to be. Watch any couple on a first date. One mask across a table from another mask. Look at the dull glaze on someone’s eyes mid-conversation at a party, or someone’s forced smile as they shift in their seat at a job interview. Mask, mask, mask. 

And yet, the results that are available as a result of removing that mask are enormous.

In her now world-famous TED talk on the Power of Vulnerability, Brené Brown talks about what she discovered about people who live ‘wholeheartedly’; with the courage and authenticity to engage with their lives fully.

"Courage, the original definition of courage, when it first came into the English language it’s from the Latin word cor, meaning heart  and the original definition was to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart. And so these folks had, very simply, the courage to be imperfect. They had the compassion to be kind to themselves first… and as a result of authenticity, they were willing to let go of who they should be in order to be who they were, which you absolutely have to do for connection."

Acknowledge where you are

Many career changers ask me: ‘Can I start making connections in the fields I’m interested in if I don’t know exactly what I want to do yet? Won’t I look scatty or be wasting someone’s time?’

Absolutely you can. Holding back from contacting people until you’re ‘ready’ is a risky game. Not only do you fall into the trap of waiting for something that may never arrive, you miss out on an opportunity to make a very human connection with someone.

As Brené Brown says, vulnerability is the key to connection. The willingness to be imperfect, to be wholly yourself, is utterly fundamental to a meaningful conversation. 

Imagine you were working on a project that you were totally passionate about, and someone came to you and said: ‘I’m in the process of changing my life. I’m not sure exactly where I’m going yet and that’s pretty scary for me, but I’m out here exploring anyway and the one thing I do know is that I’m really inspired by what you’re doing’.

Wouldn’t that speak volumes about the kind of person you have in front of you? Intrepid. Brave. Open. Human

It lays the groundwork for a real conversation, person to person, rather than ‘mask’ to ‘mask’.

One of our very first Career Change Launch Pad participantm, Rachel, found that the magic ingredient in her career change was authentic conversations. With an interest in writing and a history of mental health challenges, she wanted to explore how the two could be combined. She overcame her initial nerves and reached out to a number of people working in related fields. Openly and honestly, she shared what she was doing, why it was important to her, and why she was interested in what they were up to.

And the responses amazed her. Within a few weeks she had an offer to design and run a course in Creative Writing for Mental Health and a mentor to support her through the process. She said:

"I wouldn't have been bold enough to contact these people before the Career Change Launch Pad, I'd have been worried I was just bothering them, but this time I thought: 'nothing ventured, nothng gained' and it paid off in ways I'd never have expected. I really think the key to this has been authenticity. I didn't need to pretend I was expert in something I wasn't to get ahead. Instead I was honest and open about myself and my interests, and the opportunities came from that."

Take genuine interest in the person you’re talking to

Let’s imagine you’ve found the industry you want to move into, and you’ve found yourself talking to someone who’s well-established in that field. You’re brimming with enthusiasm and excitement, and you want to make the most of this useful new contact.

You want to know how to make yourself irresistible to potential employers. You want to know what you should be doing to be well-prepared for a shift. You want a taste of what your day-to-day would be like if you were to work in that field. 

But remember that your ‘useful new contact’ is also a person. That however senior or established or intrepid they may be, it’s very likely that they went through a tough journey of their own to get to where they are. Ask questions about who they are, not just what they’ve done. Have they ever been in the kind of situation you’re in? Why are they so passionate about what they do? Get curious about the person standing in front of you, not just the job they do or what you can get out of them. Allow them to remove their mask, too.

By doing this, you’ll not only leave them feeling seen, heard, and valued; you’ll also open up a space where they’re twenty times more likely to want to see, hear and value you.

Matt Gilligan, CEO of news update app Circa, started his first business as a small-town boy with no connections to speak of. He’s since gone on to sell two companies, and build an incredible network of people supporting him in his ventures. He says that a huge lesson he learned along the way is to remember that a networking opportunity is a conversation like any other:

"Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. You can double down on the dating metaphor: If you go into a first date and all you can do is talk about yourself, then that’s a turnoff. If all I hear is somebody just talking at me, as opposed to somebody talking with me, then I don’t want to be interacting with that person."

Ask for what you want, not what you think you can get

During my own career change, I found myself in a situation I’d never been in before. 

I was sitting in the office of a man I’d met in a bar a few days before, and I was halfway through pitching him my ideas for a full rewrite of his company website; my first ever freelance copywriting job. As I reached for my glass of water, he asked: 

“So how much do you want for this job?”

My heart dropped. I hadn’t expected the question of payment to come so early. I had no idea what a copywriter would charge for a job like this. I’d never done this before (although he didn’t know that). In the few seconds that followed, my brain went through fourteen Olympic-style gymnastics routines, and then settled into a moment of calm. 

All he had done was ask me what I wanted.

He hadn’t asked me how much I thought I was worth as a person. He hadn’t asked me how much I thought he could afford. He hadn’t asked me to name a sensible figure. He hadn’t asked me what I thought someone else could reasonably get paid for a job like this.

So I asked myself the same question he had asked: What did I want? I had just got back from three months of traveling, and I finally had some mental space to focus on what was next for me. But my bank balance was low and I was unemployed. Enough money that I wouldn’t need to get another job for a while; that’s what I wanted.

So I named a figure. At the time, it was equivalent to three months’ living costs.

He leaned across the table and extended his hand.

"Natasha, it’s a deal. Looking forward to working with you."

When given an opportunity to ask for something; a coffee, a conversation, a day of work-shadowing, a higher salary, we rarely ask for what we actually want. Instead, we ask for what we think the other person would be willing to give us. 

In a networking context, it often goes a bit like this:

First thought: ‘Oh My Goodness. This person is amazing. How in the world did they get into this industry in the first place? And is it really as glamorous/exciting/fast-paced/relaxed as it looks? I want to spend a whole day looking over this person’s shoulder so I can learn everything I can about how they’ve achieved such cool stuff.’

Second thought: ‘There’s no way they’ll agree to that. Look how great they are. Why would they want to spend a day with you? You’re going to come off as desperate. You don’t even know what you want; you’d be wasting their time.’

What actually comes out of your mouth: ‘Do you have a business card?’

Off we go, trying to predict the future. And then we go home feeling disappointed by what we’ve got, and wondering why.

I can always tell when someone’s not asking for what they want. There’s a submissiveness, a resignation to their tone that smacks of years of ‘rolling over’, doing what’s expected, being nice.

And the truth is, when someone’s able to give you what you want, it’s usually a joy for them. But you have to ask for it, first. 

Add value

Many people hate networking because they feel like everyone's out to get something, including themselves. But meaningful networking – creating lasting connections that are worthy of everyone's time – is about being out to give something.

Ramit Sethi, bestselling author and creator of 'I Will Teach You To Be Rich', says that this realisation is the core concept at the heart of making things happen:

"Building a network is not about sending a fake email to someone, pretending to be interested in them, then asking for a job. If that is your goal, leave. Building real relationships is about investing in them first, figuring out what they want and love, and then helping them get it NOT instantly expecting a magical job offer. In fact, most of the “networking” you do will simply be helping people and getting nothing back in return. If this makes you uncomfortable and you want a 1-for-1 ROI on your work, leave. When you change your mentality about networking, understanding that it’s about adding value instead of extracting it, you will see massive changes in your life."

And adding value to someone's life can be incredibly easy. If you're qualified, you can offer your time or services to support them in what they're working on. But if not, a simple e-mail linking to an article that could help your new connection is a source of great value. So is an introduction to someone you know. And if you've been paying attention to them as a person, not just as a source of help for your own career change, you'll know them well enough to know how to make them feel valued.

There are a lot of great pieces of advice out there on networking and creating connections. But what a lot of them forget to mention is the importance of authenticity; of making every interaction a person-to-person contact, rather than a conversation between two masks. 

Amanda decided to take the plunge, by the way, and she's getting in touch with the festival organiser this week. With an authentic, honest and personal approach, I don't think she can go wrong.

How could this advice help you move forward with your career change? Let us know in the comments below.

Natasha Stanley's picture

Natasha Stanley is Head of Content and Head Coach for Careershifters. She also speaks, writes and facilitates events on the art of human connection.