Here’s a story about the most important part of your life that you’re probably overlooking.
A few months ago, a boutique agency asked me if I could shoot and edit a video project for their client. The agency’s owner knows I did video work for many years, and she trusts that I could turn this project around quickly and efficiently.
Except I couldn’t.
I haven’t edited professional video for awhile, and my equipment is no longer industry standard. I had to pass.
She was in a crunch, and she hadn’t done much video work before, so her options were limited. Because she trusts my expertise, she asked me if I knew anyone else who could do this job.
I did. In fact, I knew of two.
I reached out to both of them and gave them the job specs. I asked them to send me a quote by end of week.
Only one of them got back to me.
I submitted his quote. She accepted it. But the project stalled on the client’s end, so nothing ended up happening.
So much for that, right? Business hiccups. It happens every day.
But then a few weeks later, the same agency contacted me again.
This time, she had a much bigger video project. This one had a much bigger budget, and a much higher profile. Now she needed a videographer, an editor, a project manager, and a few other people to get the job done. She hired me as a project manager, and then she asked me to contact that same videographer.
I did. He was available. He made a bid. He got the job.
What’s the lesson here?
Actually, there are two.
The short and obvious one is, “when someone asks you for a bid, give them one.” If that other video pro had returned my message, he might have stayed in the mix and ended up winning the later job. But because he didn’t, I didn’t even think to contact him when this bigger job came along. Sometimes you only get one strike.
But the bigger lesson is this:
Your Network Is Your Life
You’ve probably heard that you are the sum of the five people you spend the most time with. That alone shows how much your network matters in the long run.
But now let’s get specific.
By “your network,” I don’t just mean your family, because you can’t really control the hand you’re dealt — although they definitely impact everything about you.
I don’t just mean your friends, because you’re choosing them for social reasons more than anything else — although, like your family, they have a huge ripple effect on who you become and what you experience.
When I refer to your network, I really mean your acquaintances. In many ways, those weak connections or “outer bubble” are the people who ultimately determine your future.
Don’t believe me?
Every job I’ve been hired for in the past decade happened because of who I know.
I got my first freelance gig in 2003 through an acquaintance I met in a Pittsburgh sports rec league.
I got my first “big” gig in 2005 on a referral from my ex-boss at the job I’d just quit.
I got my first long-term client through an introduction from an online acquaintance that I’d never even met in person.
I got my last day job in part because I was Twitter friends with the hiring manager responsible for vetting the applicants.
I got the video project manager gig mentioned above because I’ve known the head of that agency for 17 years.
In every case, what I know was relevant — your skills are always the table stakes for getting hired — but what ultimately mattered was who knew what I knew.
Why It Pays to Be a Social Butterfly
I’ve written before about the importance of making sure that your network understands what you want to do with your life. (Ironically, almost none of you took me up on that post’s prompt, so I’m still recommending the same people I always do. Oh well. Your loss is their gain.)
I’ve also written about the importance of saying yes when opportunity comes along.
But the more I think about it, those two ideas dovetail into one cornerstone:
When in doubt, make the choice that expands your network, because you literally never know where it will lead.
This doesn’t just work for jobs, either. It works for socializing, creative outlets, and relationships too.
Something to Be Desired and The Baristas, the two web series I created and produced for 7+ years, happened because I knew some actors who were looking for something to do. I had an idea for a series, but if a friend of mine (who was actually the ex-girlfriend of my former roommate) hadn’t introduced me to an acting student who worked in her cafe — and if that aspiring actress hadn’t introduced me to a few of her classmates — the show never would have happened.
Talk about a bunch of loose connections adding up to something big.
Even bigger? Every serious relationship I’ve been in since high school (except for one girl I met online) happened because of who I know. Thinking backwards for almost 20 years, I’ve dated…
The sister of an acquaintance
The acquaintance of a collaborator
The friend of a friend
The classmate of a classmate’s roommate
None of these were the result of especially strong connections. They were all introductions made by someone I mostly knew in passing, who introduced me to someone else I wanted to get to know better. Had I not met those original friends and acquaintances, I never would have had those relationships.
Your life is the result of the network you choose to build.
It works in both directions, too.
Consider the videographer I helped hire for the gig I mentioned earlier. If I didn’t know what he did well, I never would have thought to recommend him. I probably know a dozen video pros, but he’s the one who came to mind.
Being a friendly, considerate, social person might be all you need to get that next break. (At worst, it certainly can’t hurt.)
In fact, I’m writing this post while sitting in the same coffee shop where I met a girl named Justine Ezarik ten years ago. Back then, she was a new college graduate with multimedia experience, and I was a web series producer who needed a digital press kit. I asked her to make me one. She did. That was how we met.
Not long after that, I had a chance to repay that favor.
Justine had entered an online video contest. The prize was huge in terms of exposure. But she had a problem: after she’d filmed her entry — but before she’d been able to edit and submit it — her gear had been stolen. In a panic, she tweeted for help. Did she know anyone with gear she could borrow for a 24-hour turnaround?
I saw that tweet. I lent her my gear. She made her video.
Fast forward a decade and Justine Ezarik is now better known as YouTube superstar iJustine. But before she got there, she was an aspiring creator who had a problem and needed help.
Her network came through. (You can read more about it in her new book.)
Society makes a big deal out of geniuses and entrepreneurs. It romanticizes overnight success. It places enormous value on the story of having a singular vision, and of those individuals who overcome endless obstacles to attain their lofty goals.
What society almost never mentions is that not a single one of those people attain those goals alone. They all do it with the help of their entire network. From a supportive word or a casual introduction to the direct assistance of money, time, and materials, our networks are what make all of our successes possible.
Does your network know what you want?
Do you know what your network wants?
How are you helping?
Have we met?
In the spirit of this idea, I’m going to do something I haven’t done for awhile.
For the month of October, I’ll accept all Facebook friend requests or LinkedIn connections [within reason].
Let’s expand our networks and see where it gets us.
Because the truth is, we literally don’t know.
So let’s find out.
Leland Strott · October 7, 2015 at 12:42 pm
I used to plan corporate meetings and conferences — a job I got thanks to a sorority sister who met my future boss at a professional association breakfast meeting. At the networking events I planned, someone would inevitably walk in the door demanding to see the attendee list so he or she could identify the exclusive few people they wanted to connect with. Based on a title or company name, these people thought they could tell exactly who would benefit them, like they knew the value of anyone’s connection. I even got a call from someone who wanted us to better designate company types on the name badges, so he wouldn’t waste his time talking to people who couldn’t help him. (He flat out admitted this. I shook my head.) These people don’t know what you (we) know.
Each step I’ve taken in my career has been thanks to a connection — family friends, Twitter friends, that sorority sister, a friend I made at a blogger meetup in Las Vegas, another friend’s boyfriend’s former colleague. These days, I love returning the favor. We haven’t chatted in ages, but I’ll be happy to recommend you for projects whenever I can!
Justin Kownacki · October 11, 2015 at 11:18 am
Thanks! As for your anecdote, that’s just how some people see the world: everything is resource management, and they operate from a scarcity panic. They may be very successful with that tunnel vision, but that’s not how I prefer to exist. I enjoy unpredictability and serendipity too much to optimize it out of my life.
Sherree Worrell · October 5, 2015 at 11:25 pm
What do you do when you have a network that you don’t wish to bother because it makes you uncomfortable? Yeah, that’s me. Really liked this post — have read it a few times today — it makes so much sense.
Justin Kownacki · October 6, 2015 at 8:34 pm
Sounds like you either need a new network or a new self-estimation. If you know what you want to achieve and your network can help you, ask. If they can’t, find people who can. And if you don’t know… well, that’s a different story. :)
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