Few practices are more necessary for the young professional than networking. “Who you know” is what matters most, so we must connect with people who will help us scale the professional ladder. This, at least, is conventional business wisdom.

Though transactional relationships are necessary in business, the conventional approach to networking is problematic, as it tends to emphasize image at the expense of substance. To the extent that networking preoccupies us with appearances, it distracts us from real professional excellence. This excellence is the basis for truly enriching professional relationships, and it can serve as an alternative to the spirit of unbridled acquisitiveness that usually drives how we network.

Thinking about Our Selves

Networking is self-marketing in the digital age. Beginning in the early 1970s, a “network” referred to two or more computers connected to transmit, exchange, or share data. By the early 1980s, we began using the word “network” as an intransitive verb to describe how individuals interact for the sake of developing or strengthening their professional status. It took very little time for us to describe our analogue selves in terms borrowed from computation. Perceiving that business relations resemble computer processes, we inadvertently assigned ourselves the same purpose as a machine: for both the person and the processor, advancement means more and faster.

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Yet the acquisitive spirit that led us to liken ourselves to machines predates the computer. What underlies networking is the collective pursuit of self-interest. “The net” is not a common good; its goal is to maximize gains for the sake of one’s own advancement. It is only reasonable for us to improve our material situations, and if our transactions result in a net improvement, so much the better; the market has succeeded.

Allan Bloom explains the genealogy of this reigning opinion in The Closing of the American Mind:

Once the old virtues were refutedthe piety of the religious or the honor of the noblesHobbes and Locke assumed that most men would immediately agree that their self-preservative desires are real, that they come from within and take primacy over any other desire. The true self is not only good for individuals but provides a basis for consensus not provided by religions or philosophies. Locke’s substitute for the virtuous man, the rational and industrious one, is the perfect expression of this solution. . . .  The great change is that a good man used to be the one who cares for others, as opposed to the man who cares exclusively about himself. Now the good man is the one who knows how to care for himself, as opposed to the man who does not. . . . Of course, we are told, the healthy inner-directed person will really care for others. To which I can only respond: If you can believe that, you can believe anything.

The original meaning of “be true to yourself” is that virtue matters insofar as it “works”—honesty is good only because it is the best policy for winning. In Plato’s Republic, Adeimantus observes that even well-meaning parents and teachers tell their charges to get a good reputation in order to secure a good job. Benjamin Franklin actively promotes this view of virtue in his autobiography, where he teaches that character is nothing other than reputation and that one should use the appearance of virtue to gain a reputation that will be useful along the way to wealth.

This approach to networking leads us to think predominantly in terms of how others perceive us. This is why “it’s not what you know, it’s whom you know.” In this view, it isn’t necessarily the quality of your work (or your soul) that matters, but the reputation you have built up in the eyes of those who could benefit you.

The conventional approach to networking is problematic, as it tends to emphasize image at the expense of substance.


Being Successful; Seeming Good

Rousseau forcefully challenges the doctrine that winning friends and influencing people through appearances (the titular goal of a famous self-help book) is the key to happiness. In his Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau argues that the emergence of society, driven as it is by vanity (amour propre), made it necessary “to appear to be other than what one was. To be and to seem to be became two altogether different things.” Rousseau treats this bifurcation between being and seeming as a perennial problem. For him, preoccupation with appearances predates modern politics and is coterminous with the emergence of society itself. (In this, Rousseau’s critique of the bourgeois differs from that of his reader, Marx.)

One need not agree with Rousseau’s anthropology to see that modern politics and economics elevate appearance over reality. Modern societies are organized according to the public acceptance of Machiavelli’s dictum that it is not necessary to be virtuous, just to seem so for the sake of acquiring goods. The corresponding political and economic arrangements form us to pursue comfort and gain, diverting us from either seeking the true good or sacrificing our inclinations out of duty. A person formed in this way thinks only of himself when dealing with others and only of others’ opinions when trying to understand himself, as Bloom quips in his Introduction to Rousseau’s Emile.

Thinking about Our Souls

Rousseau’s critique of self-deception for the sake of material gain has led many of his readers to propose authenticity as an alternative. Authenticity is often said to entail following one’s deepest longings, the source of which is the “true self.” But the person who seeks an authentic experience of his “true self” might have to free himself from his own intellect to “find himself,” as Rousseau’s “solitary dreamer” does. Such a person might be advised to “stop overthinking it” and try to focus on his wantsto follow his “dream.” This remedy has proven to be as problematic as the malady; for reasons outside the scope of this essay, the “true self” is an inadequate (if not depraved) guide for life. 

But one need not defer to Rousseau’s followers or their conception of the authentic individual to navigate the problem that Rousseau rightly highlights. One can conceive of the problem differently, thinking about networking’s effects on the soul rather than about its repression of the self.

A life devoted to satisfying one desire after another amounts to a “joyless quest for joy.” But if we aren’t careful, this is precisely the life for which the conventional approach to networking tends to form us. To the extent that we habitually connect with others in our profession solely because they are useful for gain, ambition, or ease, we form within ourselves an acquisitiveness that says “more is always better.” This sort of character is not primarily concerned with excellence as a profession, art, trade, or discipline defines it.

This is not to say that conducting business relationships is vicious or pointless. Good business often requires the cultivation of certain excellences, such as prudence or moderation. However, insofar as the way we network subordinates these excellences to self-promotion, it will undermine the virtues that past generations of businessmen believed to be essential, such as loyalty, honesty, service, and the honor of one’s company or profession. Such virtues, together with substantive prowess in one’s work, are what can provide a better basis for making professional connections than self-interest narrowly understood. They are the virtues that made the handshake a meaningful symbol.

A life devoted to satisfying one desire after another amounts to a “joyless quest for joy.” But if we aren’t careful, this is precisely the life for which the conventional approach to networking tends to form us.


Excellence and Professionalism

The networking in which young professionals typically engage forms their souls to follow the promise of gain from one connection to another. Insofar as networking presupposes that “getting ahead” is an unambiguous good, the networker habituates himself to living primarily according to the calculation of his own relative gain. But the life devoted solely to “moving up” follows a path different from that of the life dedicated to professional (or human) excellence. While the first prioritizes unlimited acquisition, the second defines success according to a standard that points beyond immediate profit. This latter mode provides a model for reforming how we establish and maintain professional relationships.

The conventional networker is ever alive to opportunities for gain, pursuing upward mobility wherever it may lead; but the lover of excellence admires his science, art, or labor done well. In his essay “The Inner Ring,” C. S. Lewis sets out this remedy: “If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it.” That is, it is better to relate to others in one’s profession through a robust community of “sound craftsmen” than merely as an opportunity-prospector. This is the best way to ensure that excellence remains the focus of one’s career rather than an unlikely byproduct.

In That Hideous Strength, Lewis illustrates this point by describing a group of academics who have dedicated their whole careers to profiting by cultivating the appearance of professionalism without practicing their academic disciplines well. A conversation among these academics reaches a comical climax when it becomes clear that none of the professors can recall exactly what discipline each of the others is supposed to be practicing. The game of making connections has overtaken the work that such connections are supposed to serve.

Instead of making connections just for the sake of upward mobility, professionals should nurture relationships that reflect the “sound craftsmen” model. This is not to say one should never strive for a better position or higher salary. But one should prioritize forging friendships with peers and mentors who will help one improve in one’s field.

Another important kind of relationship would be between a junior professional and his senior, or between a client and a patron. These relationships might resemble the ancient Roman patronage (patrocinium), bonds intended to promote loyalty, mutual trust, and a definite good. 

Successful professionals can also establish a different kind of patronage relationship with institutions and organizations that serve a common good. These connections would not exclude the pursuit of material benefit, but they would be characterized by honor for those who have achieved excellence in the service of a larger community.

This experiment commends itself to anyone concerned with standards of excellence and virtue, not just with improving one’s status. Quiet, steady service to one’s profession, though more challenging, promises the kind of substantive reward in which the professional can rightly take pride long after he is no longer young.

Image by Rustam Kholov and licensed via Adobe Stock