How a state college guy like me ended up speaking at Harvard Business School on a topic that I regularly rail against still baffles me to this day. But there I was standing in front of 100 HBS students, all eager to learn the best tips for networking.

“Networking”… Just the word alone makes my skin crawl. And thinking about the painfully contrived advice I’ve heard over the years such as, “always make a rule to talk to everyone wearing a blue tie” makes me want to fly into a rage. Here was my chance to either further corrupt the minds of our next generation of business leaders, or perhaps save them from hundreds of uncomfortable evenings wandering around mixers pretending to be interested in conversations about nothing.

Contrary to popular advice, networking is for losers. Why? Because the kind of people you want to meet aren’t out at networking events, handing out business cards. Think about it. Have you ever seen Marc Andreessen at a Tweet-up or a monthly chamber of commerce mixer? Of course not. He doesn’t have time to hang out with smankers and people trying to sell him things. Going to an open networking event is like going to a dating party for really unattractive people. There might be an occasional diamond in the rough, but usually it’s just rough.

If regular networking is out, then what are the alternatives? I asked the HBS students, “How many of you have friends?” Most of the hands went up. “Why are you friends with those people? I hope it’s because you like spending time with them.” Puzzled faces stared back at me.

I explained, “If people enjoy spending time with you, then you can build friendships, and friendships are much more powerful than networking. Networking is transactional. It’s about finding people who you think will benefit you. Making friends is social, and social bonds are stronger than transactional ones.”

You’re probably thinking, “Well that’s just stupid. I have lots of friends but how does that replace networking? Don’t you still need to go out and meet new people?” Not necessarily. A few strong relationships can open far more doors than a thousand evenings of glad handing and networking. I can trace at least half the people I know in the tech industry back to just a handful of close friends.

The secret is understanding that, in contrast to people climbing the ladder, successful people often consider relationships more valuable than contacts. For people who are kind of a big deal, finding contacts is easy. Finding friends who aren’t out to take advantage of them is a much more difficult task.

The HBS students were baffled. I imagine they were expecting me to tell them something like, “The secret to networking is to ask how you can help first.” Aside from being stale and overused, the problem with advice like this is two-fold: a) It’s still transactional, and b) what if you have nothing to offer?  It’s not uncommon for me to be introduced to people whose accomplishments are beyond the realm of anything I can affect. I literally have nothing to offer them besides my friendship.

If all of this sounds like wishful thinking that’s impractical in the real world, consider this. On paper, I’m just some random dude. I’m not rich. I didn’t go to Stanford, and I have no technical ability of any kind. People who operate under the rules of networking often dismiss me as someone not worth talking to.

And yet, when I think about the people I count amongst my friends and the personal introductions they’ve made for me, introductions to the type of people you could never meet at a networking event, I am flattered to the point of embarrassment.

By the rules of networking, it defies logic. But by the rules of friendship, it makes all the sense in the world.

[Illustration by Jeremy Hughes]