The role of early ‘networking’ in shaping our later lives and why we should take it more seriously.
He was just 7 years old. He loved swimming but he wasn’t there just for the fun of it. He had his sights set on greatness. One morning his friend invited him over to check out an adjoining part of the sports complex. It was an invitation that would change everything.
Leap forward 16 years and that same boy, now a young man, found himself at the Rio Olympics standing on the podium to receive his first gold medal. That was followed by a second gold just half an hour later. Max Whitlock was crowned olympic champion in the mens pommel horse and, immediately afterwards, the mens floor exercise. He was in the Rio Olympic Arena — the home of the gymnastics — a full kilometre from the Aquatics Centre.
On that fateful morning 16 years earlier, it turns out that Max’s friend had invited him to the gym to ‘have a go at gymnastics’ thinking that he might enjoy it. He was right. Max was hooked and he’s now a double gold olympian.
Networking is a concept that most of us don’t really consider as ‘a thing’ until we enter our professional lives. Until then, our networks are considered in more friendly terms — Our family, our friends, our youth club, our sports team. Once we enter the work force, things change. We are taught the importance of networking and how to network. After we’ve been doing it for a while, many of us find the experience of networking to be inauthentic and uncomfortable. As a result, much recent literature has focused on things like ‘how to love networking’ and even ‘how to make networking feel less icky’.
Whatever way you look at it and whatever your experience, your network is incredibly important. If we define networking roughly as ‘the act of building and maintaining a human network’ then it’s easy to see its importance. If you look back on all of the significant breakthroughs and pivots in your life, chances are that each doorway to insight or opportunity was opened by a person. A connection. Someone in your network. As Max Whitlock’s example shows, those doors start opening at a very young age. Most of us don’t pay attention to this. I think we should.
I grew up in a small city in northern New Zealand. I went to a small suburban primary school. When I was ten years old we moved to the country and I transferred to an even smaller local country school for my final year of primary education. I was the new kid at school and I was assigned a buddy. His name was Graham. In principle, it’s a great system. Graham was my go-to guy. It gave me an immediate network of 1 and through Graham I met other kids and learned how my new school worked.
Looking back, Graham also influenced me in ways that I was not really alert to at the time. Like when it came time to choose a winter sport to participate in. One day at school, we all went outside and stood in the line of the sport we wanted to play. Graham had played hockey in previous years so he stood in the hockey line. I wasn’t too fussed and hadn’t really thought about it so, despite having never played hockey before, I joined him. I ended up playing hockey for the next 7 years, right through high school. Thinking critically about other choices taken and opportunities created in my life, they were all influenced by the people I admired — I took up Tae Kwon Do at University as one of my tutors who I really admired was the coach; or didn’t like — I gave up accounting in high school as I couldn’t stand the teacher.
Many of my choices were accidental. They were the result of circumstance. Right time, right place. Or in some cases, wrong time or place. Because I didn’t really have a clear picture of what I wanted to be/do when I grew up, I tended to jump on opportunities as they presented themselves. It has worked pretty well for me. I’ve lived and worked in 5 different countries. I’m part of several global communities of brilliant people. I’ve worked on world class projects with world class talent. That said, looking back I feel like I didn’t really get how the world worked and what opportunities were available to me until I’d lived abroad for a few years. I had exposed myself to the things that simply weren’t available to me in that small rural part of New Zealand.
Sometimes I wonder how things might have been different had I been exposed to more things and different kinds of people — different networks — at earlier age. Now that I have children of my own, I’ve started thinking about how I can help them to find and foster their most valuable connections in the most natural and authentic way. I wonder though how my wife and I can start to manage their networks to track the connections they make in the playground or at nursery. Might all those mornings networking with today’s best mate on the swings in the local playground prove to be invaluable in opening doors to unexpected opportunities later in life?
There is a fine line to be walked here — between nudging and nurturing.
At one extreme we find examples of top sportspeople such as Tiger Woods (golf) and the Williams sisters (tennis) who were strongly nudged, some might say pushed, to pursue a single career from a very young age. Success depends on a ‘deep’ networking strategy: all networking should be focused on making and maintaining the connections that can continue to advance the child’s career in that single chosen field.
At the other extreme are completely hands-off parenting styles in which children are expected to find out everything for themselves. This requires a ‘broad’ networking strategy: exposure to as many people and ideas as possible. However, as explained by Simon Sinek in part of a recent interview about Millennials in the Workplace, such a ‘you can be anything you want to be’ style of parenting is not necessarily healthy as it sets unrealistic expectations. This is not helped by the fact that as a child you don’t know what (and who) you don’t know. The breadth of one child’s perception of ‘anything’ will likely be different from that of a child living in different circumstances.
I suggest that while the right approach to early networking will probably vary from child to child, there are surely some basic principles that can be considered by all children, and their parents, to offer the best chance of success.
To all parents out there, I’m curious to hear if you’re a nudger or a nurturer when it comes to the building and maintaining networks of your children, and how you put this into practice.