Strangers on a Train

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When is it OK to stop networking?

By Caren Lissner

It was a bright April afternoon and I was heading back to New York on Amtrak from 30th Street Station, admiring the architecture and street art that mark North Philly’s old factories. I had just talked to a group of students on campus about publishing, writing, and arts careers— part of a Benjamin Franklin Scholars alumni luncheon series—and I was eager for the journey home. I’ve always loved train travel, no matter how short the ride; the railroad is like a moving museum of Americana. Old train lines take us through former industrial hubs that evoke a quaint time when businesses grew around and depended on the reliability of the slow-moving locomotive. To travel north from 30th Street Station is to delight in painted slogans on factory walls urging people to buy wool (“The wonder fiber!”; “Accept no imitations!”). Not so long ago, an enterprising individual could build a business and draw foot traffic or influence customers just through a hand-painted sign—before they had to compete with chain stores or use TV ads or websites to lure clients from far and wide.

I was lucky enough to snag a window seat. Soon after, a tall, handsome gentleman in a gray suit sat beside me.

As I watched the factories slide by, and snapped photos, I listened to my neighbor chat with his three coworkers across the aisle. It soon became apparent that they worked for an advertising firm and were heading to New York for a meeting. I was intrigued. They had their computers out for a sort of pre-meeting meeting and were hashing out the merits of using various words in an ad campaign for travel to Western European countries. (Clearly they, too, had a reach beyond the hand-painted sign.)

Then I spied something in the upper corner of my seat-mate’s computer screen: his name in all capital letters. For the sake of privacy—if not much originality—let’s call him Dave Draper.

He seemed to be the leader of the foursome. I couldn’t resist doing a web search on my phone to see who he was.

Was I being nosy, or even creepy? Perhaps. But if you claim you wouldn’t entertain the possibility of such a thing, where’s your sense of curiosity?

Reader, I googled him.

A cascade of images trickled down my screen. The guy was apparently enough of a tech and advertising guru that his portrait was all over the websites of various companies — an earnest posed photo in a black sweater, staring ambitiously toward the sky.

People who brand themselves like that, it seems to me, run the risk of always feeling they have to be in character, never “off message.” On the other hand, entrepreneurial creatives do have to promote themselves, because no one else will do it—it’s how they keep getting hired.

As the train rumbled along, Google filled in Dave’s profile for me. He was in his mid-30s and had found success in several industries. Not so ironically, he’d worked for Google after college. He’d moved to a small advertising firm, then ascended to a larger firm.

I also learned that, a few years after college, he had written a film script. So he was a writer, like me!

I almost never sit next to anyone interesting on a train—at least, that I know of. I love hearing about people’s creative projects. So I decided to find out more.

I found personal essays he’d published online about battling depression. So not only was he successful and creative, he was honest about his struggles. He was, in short, the kind of person I’d like to know.

But he was busy in conversation with his colleagues. It didn’t seem appropriate to say anything. Still, what were the chances I’d meet someone like him again? In a nearly two-hour ride, shouldn’t I at least say hello?

Besides talking about writing, maybe I should network with him; after all, I’d been laid off from my newspaper job (of 24 years) in December. I was most definitely on the hunt for freelance gigs. He might someday know of a project that could benefit from both of our expertise.

Problem was, there were no openings in the conversation. Dave and his coworkers were intensely discussing which words to use to promote (let’s call it) Luxembourg.

I had to wonder: If I were ambitious and confident—if I were a tall man in a suit instead of an undersized, awkward writer—would I extend a beefy hand and say hi? Break in with, “I couldn’t help but overhearing…?” Women are constantly told to “negotiate like a man,” so perhaps I should network like one.

Instead, I made a series of bargains with myself: I would say something to Dave before we reached Trenton. Then, by New Brunswick. Well, at least Linden. (Come to think of it, “At Least Linden” could be a terrific ad slogan for Linden; Dave could have hired me based on that alone.)

Even in my 40s, I constantly debate the smallest personal or professional decision: Should I attend a networking event on a weekend instead of staying home to write and read like I want to? Those of us who tend toward introversion constantly have to evaluate whether we’re achieving the proper balance of solo and social time.

As I went back and forth on whether to talk to Dave, I also laughed at myself for being so goofy and insecure. It takes special talent to multitask at several distinct forms of self-flagellation.

I kept my ears open, but Dave and his colleagues never hit a conversational lull. Was a great opportunity passing me by? Or was that just Newark passing me by? When is it OK to stop networking?

To judge from the internet, the answer would appear to be never. “Considering that at least 60 percent of all jobs are found this way [by networking], networking shouldn’t be something that happens only when we need a job,” notes the site ZipRecruiter. “Like a healthy diet and exercise, networking should be a way of life—an ongoing activity that we do to maintain the health of our careers.”

Accordingly, some self-appointed experts urge people to “network at every opportunity,” as Damon Brown put it in a 2018 piece for Inc.  But even Brown (brand tagline: “Helping Non-Traditional Creatives Bloom”) notes that the setting matters, and crowded events can be counter-productive to making an authentic, old-fashioned connection. Which, according to Forbes contributor Shelley Zalis—who’s branded herself online as “chief troublemaker” and runs the corporate gender-equality consultancy The Female Quotient—is what meeting each other is really all about.  “Forget networking,” she writes, “and embrace relationships.” Citing an inspirational nugget of wisdom from Maya Angelou, Zalis urges us to harness our “connectional intelligence,” which is actually a way of “getting ahead and delivering results.”

How should I apply this counsel on a packed train where my target was deep in a strategy session before a Big Apple pitch meeting? That was hard to say.  (What would Maya Angelou have done?)

Perhaps if Dave had been sitting alone and editing a screenplay, it would have made sense to strike up a conversation. This didn’t seem like the right time.

In the pre-internet days, he might have just been enjoying the ride, too. But I wouldn’t have known anything about his background, unless he was still talking among colleagues. In that case, I would have had to be bolder and reach out in order to find out more. Maybe I would have learned different things, forged a slower connection. Either way, I felt pressure.

I decided there had to be middle ground between “networking at every opportunity” and never taking a chance. I kept listening for a cue, but I took the pressure off myself.

The creative quartet talked all the way to New York, then rose to head out. I made a quick comment to Dave that it seemed like he enjoyed working with words. He smiled and said yes, they were in advertising. Then our special time came to an end.

Fortunately, I didn’t beat myself up for not saying more. After all, it had been a good day: I’d talked to some enthusiastic students, enjoyed a tasty boxed lunch, and walked away from an Amtrak ride without any injury or delay.

Besides, shouldn’t Dave have been trying to figure out how to network with me? After all, a prestigious institution of learning had just given me both a pita wrap and cookie to come influence their young charges.

I climbed out of the station and noticed tiny purple buds blooming on the trees. It was a lovely afternoon.

Caren Lissner C’93, author of the novel Carrie Pilby, is at work on a second novel.

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