Beyond a Standardized Definition of Success or Why Networking Events are Hell

Forget rats, I’d like to do psychological research on people that attend networking events. First there’s the smiley girl that asks you (and everyone else) if she can get you a drink. Then that guy that is still wearing his Google employee badge – we got it hot shot. Also the unemployed, overdressed gentleman who is standing by the chip bowl handing out napkins and introducing himself as a “freelance consultant.” Finally there is the guy hunched over in the corner, making no eye contact, pounding a $6 merlot, and shoveling cheese dip into his mouth. That’s me.

I hate networking events. Although I am proud of my current work positions (which are much more solidified than 18 months ago), I respond to the “what do you do?” question from a place of deep insecurity. Over compensating I speak with a grandiosity that would make Kanye West blush.

I consult for Fortune 500 companies by revolutionizing their processes and strategies while simultaneously changing the fundamental way that they do business and making real sure that the way they lead exceeds everyone’s expectations, oh, oh, and I also work with social enterprises and world changing Millennials and impact investors who are looking to really change the world from the inside out without any exceptions all the way until it’s the best forever and ever, like, forever, the best. That’s what I live for, like, deeply. What do you do?

I’m embarrassed because that was a direct quote.

Why do I respond that way? Because among my peers here in San Francisco, that is what is valued. If you are working your ass off as a mechanic, you are going to get a polite smile and next thing you know you are “sipping” your “second” Merlot by yourself. People value size, progressiveness, and world change so I bolster my bio to fit the expectations.

Even as I type, the words of a self help book enter my mind “Jarrod, there is no need to puff your self up. You are the one who gets to decide what real success is. Define it for yourself!” Unfortunately, value is socially constructed. That Oprah like voice is a lie. I believe that value is the extent to which a society, group, or family holds something to be important. In other words, all value is social.

For example, do you understand why a dollar is worth what it is? Right now in your pocket, do you have a dollar? Probably not. You have a debit card though? What is that worth? The raw materials are worth less than 1/50 of 1 cent. But that card is linked to your bank. But does the bank have your dollars? And what is a dollar? Paper? Why is that worth anything? In the 7th century the coin was worth its weight in the metal it was minted in. But today, currency is a symbol. The dollar, pound, yen, and peso are socially standardized measures of value.

I am not a historian or an economist, and my concern is not the standardization currency. My concern is that we are also standardizing our definition of success. There is a socially standardized expectation that we should grow fast, be increasingly profitable, and ignore those that say otherwise. We should change the world, challenge the status quo, and make a big splash! We need higher test scores, bigger congregations, more downloads, twice as many unique visits, a bigger building, more patients cared for – the list is too easy to create.

I am all for measuring success as long as we understand – what I am trying to come to terms with in my own work – that all things were not created equal. A professor of Biochemistry at Colombia University says “there is a proper size to everything in the world. We have lost entirely this sense of measure.” If there is a proper size to everything then we cannot have one, universal, standardized measure for success.  Consider this an ecological and anthropological truth. The Caryota palm tree can exceed 90 feet tall while a Serenoa Palm will never grow beyond 10. Were they both successful in growing? Yes. Can they rely on height as the metric for success? No.

But plants don’t have performance-based incentives, weekly calls with their investors, or report to the CEO. For us it can be quite exhausting, disheartening, and anxiety producing to be a part of industries, organizations, and even families that abide by this standard of success. The words of author Nassim Taleb (please check out Antifragile) ring true for me in this regard,

“Missing a train is only painful if you run after it! Likewise, not matching the idea of success others expect from you is only painful if that’s what you are seeking.”

I’m tired of running after it. You?

So perhaps the self help folks are correct and we do all need to take time to define success for ourselves. Or at the very least, slow down and realize that the definition of success we are after may be the culturally informed, standardized variety. Knowing how we measure success allows us to distinguish what is important to us and thus provides much needed guidance for what should be pursued as opposed to what could be pursued.

I am still not exactly sure of my proper size, shape, and contribution to the world, but I am beginning to feel the freedom that can come with this mindshift. If we all embraced this idea, maybe the envious job comparison will end, greed will cease, and the sleepless nights discontinue! And think about this…NO MORE NETWORKING EVENTS! WE WILL NEVER DRINK MERLOT AGAIN!


2 Comments on "Beyond a Standardized Definition of Success or Why Networking Events are Hell"

  1. Mozart says:

    Great points. This obsession with size is truly disturbing in our culture and it also leads to us pining for responsibilities that we don’t want. In your note, the question that keeps coming to mind is, how do we send a signal at networking events and other such situations that people can feel safe being vulnerable and not dance to the latest hyperbole? Which begs a different, but related question, if we don’t use signals (status, access, stature, position, education, profession, etc) and look at the whole person, how do we vet for competence and excellence? And is that important?

  2. BLAINE says:

    Here’s that link we were talking about earlier today: