personal

The End of Letters

Letter of Note - Mott

I’ve long enjoyed the website/Twitter feed Letters of Note, which resurrects correspondence between famous people or personal notes recalling significant historical events.

In cleaning up my office today, I stumbled upon my own letter of note from a since-departed university professor who taught a class on “The End of History.” Professor Albert Mott was an ascot-wearing eccentric who didn’t blink an eye when I told him I was going to write my class project on 1970s British punk music. (Laughably, I think I titled my piece “No Time to Be 21” after this song by The Adverts.) I’m still not sure where I was going with that, but he made sure to loan me his copy of “Sid and Nancy” for additional research.

I can’t remember the last time that I received a personal letter like this (i.e., one that wasn’t an email). Of course, I can’t remember the last letter I sent either. At any rate, I’m pleased to get this glimpse back at myself and a few of my post-collegiate thoughts.

The end of history. The end of letters.

The end.

Hubble Nebula 5189

Departing Is Such Sweet Sorrow

Hubble Nebula 5189

Hubble Telescope’s photo of the planetary nebula NGC 5189.

“What would you ask an astronaut?”

My friend Pam, who was preparing to interview everyone’s current favorite space explorer Commander Chris Hadfield, posed that question on Facebook the other day. “What would you ask an astronaut?”

I chimed in because who wouldn’t want to ask an astronaut a question? Fewer than 600 people have ever been in space in the history of the world — that’s roughly the average number of people within a social network. Being an astronaut is the rarest of occupations; going to space is the rarest of trips.

The Perils of Networking When Everyone Is Your Friend

NYC Pigeon

I know a lot of fascinating people.

I know writers and editors, chefs and restaurateurs, celebrity personal assistants and a few well-connected people in the television industry, pilots and programmers, museum curators and fashion designers. Many of the fascinating people I know I knew Before Social Media (BSM)*, while many others I “know” I have met thanks to sites like Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn, etc.

I know as many details – if not more – about some of my online “friends” as I do about the ones I knew BSM. This is not necessarily because I’ve been stalking people’s profiles or Googling them. I have learned about them through reading their writing, corresponding with them, asking them about their lives. My online friends are the pen pals this introvert always wish she had: people with intriguing occupations and riveting travel stories available for a conversation within seconds of my bidding.

It doesn’t matter how I know people; the dynamics of acquaintance are so fluid these days. What has me concerned is that the more people that I meet, the more I feel like I am reducing my chances at achieving some professional goals. The more that I network, the less inclined I feel to use that network to land a job or ask for favors.

Yes, I’m going about this all wrong. But let me explain.

I adore meeting new people. While I’ve never considered myself much of a networker in the “real world,” socializing online feels very natural to me. For better or for worse, my head is filled with the minutiae of others’ interests: that guy works on death penalty issues, so let me send him this link; she is an eco-conscious mommy blogger, so she may be interested in this article on a new medical study; he likes planes; she’s traveling in Australia; etc.

I’m not sure how I keep up with it all, but it gives me great pleasure to connect the dots and share information with those I know will appreciate it. What’s more, having had this online interaction makes it easier for me to engage these friends should I meet them offline at a conference or happy hour. Being able to begin a “real life” conversation with a frame of reference, possibly even months or years in the making, puts me at ease. No doubt, I have acquired many real friends thanks to initial online contact.

So, what are the perils of this type of networking?

Over the years, as I have met fascinating people, I have corralled them into a virtual “friend zone” whose borders I am reluctant to cross. Once I know the name of a fascinating friend’s baby or allow a fascinating friend to enter my Facebook world of family photos, it becomes harder for me to ask them for professional advice lest they feel that I was using them all along. For example, once I am friends with an editor of a publication for which I want to write, asking her about the latest staff job posting or how to query her publication seems like a breach of trust on my part.

I know that job opportunities come along more often than not because of who you know not what you know. But how does a job seeker break out of the “friend zone” and feel comfortable asking for help or advice or a reference?

Social media has given all of us unprecedented access to people we never would have met BSM. This access has also helped to break down communication barriers, bringing our would-be idols down to earth and, sometimes, turning fascinating people into true friends. I am grateful for my ever-growing list of contacts. They are friends who perform all manner of jobs, live all over the globe, and inspire me to do more and reach higher. But I am also curious how I can use my network to my advantage without upsetting the friendship cart.

I have been looking for a professional “home” for years. And while I am content to freelance, I know that there are some awesome projects, part-time jobs, and full-time assignments for which I am remarkably qualified. Further, I have on more than one occasion linked an online friend to a job opportunity, a press trip, or a book-writing contract. What can I do to make others think of me when a job opportunity using my skill set comes across their desk? I know that I can not be passive in this pursuit, but taking an active stance does not feel natural when relationship dynamics are at stake.

Have you faced this problem? Now that you are connected to someone in an enviable position, do you feel reluctant to ask them how they got to where they are and how you can get there, too? Surely, I’m not the only one experiencing this networking conundrum.

*I use BSM (Before Social Media) for brevity. Please don’t think I’m trying to coin an annoying new anagram here!

Photo: ZeroOne