My whole life I have suffered from social anxiety.
It’s something that would surprise a lot of people. I am a social extrovert. I am often the loudest (sometimes obnoxiously so) and most outgoing person in most rooms. I get my energy from interacting with others. And yet those same situations cause me anxiety.
Talk about a catch 22.
I have had social anxiety ever since I was a kid. It used to be bad. Outside of a few best friends, I wasn’t able to spend time in social settings with friends outside of work. The first time I hung out in an unstructured group setting (not a birthday party or a sports practice etc.) was my freshman year of high school.
The weird thing was that it was never the act of being social or the event itself. It was the anticipation of being in a social setting that caused the anxiety ahead of time. Once I got there, I was fine. In fact, I was more than fine. Being social is when I am at my best.
Luckily, I was able to get help. My parents had the resources to pay for me to see a psychologist when I was in middle school. Vocalizing my internal thoughts made a huge difference. Often my own self-talk sounded laughable when said out-loud. By talking about my feelings with an objective third party, I was slowly able to shift the way I talked with myself. I am so grateful I had the opportunity to get help and it breaks my heart that asking for help with mental health still seems to be so stigmatized by our society. I can honestly say that I would not be where I am today without it. Healthy, happy, and (mostly) well-adjusted.
But that doesn’t mean I still don’t get anxious sometimes. Anyone who has dealt with anxiety will understand what I am talking about. The anxiety never really goes away. You just learn to deal with it.
For me, the best strategy was “faking it till I made it”. Every time I threw myself into a social setting I was anxious about, the little voice in my head telling me I wasn’t good enough whispered a little bit more quietly. I acted like I was confident and before long I started to actually feel confident. Over time that little voice went away almost completely.
But it still crops its head up every now and again.
Especially when it comes to networking.
I don’t know what it is, but networking has always given me a spot of trouble. I guess it is just the fact that I generally don’t know anyone at all. True or not, I have this idea in my head that everyone else knows each other and it is easy to get intimidated by that.
Now, you can see why this is a problem.
As a venture capital investor, networking is a big part of my job.
Cultivating a network of relationships with entrepreneurs and other investors is one of the keys to success in this career. It’s not always easy, but I have come up with a few strategies that help me and that may help other people.
Learn someone’s story
The biggest improvement in my ability to network came after re-framing the entire activity. A former colleague of mine was always getting drinks with people after work or meeting up with people in his network for lunch. Most of these connections were people he had met briefly or only a couple of times previously. I had no idea how he did it. When I finally asked him how he was able to network so effectively his response was to tell me that he just liked “hearing people’s story.” As soon as I heard that it was like the clouds parted. I love meeting new people and learning about their story. Ever since I reframed networking as getting to hear people’s stories, instead of focusing on how to present my own, it has gotten exponentially easier and more fun!
An inch wide and a mile deep
Another big key has been focusing on quality over quantity when it came to social connections. I would get overwhelmed by feeling like I would never be able to talk to everyone at an event. So now I don’t even try. I focus on trying to make a smaller amount of deeper connections. I would rather have two 20-minute conversations than eight 5-minute conversations. Aside from just taking the pressure off, I also think this is just a much more effective way to network. If you have a superficial conversation with someone for 5-minutes, you will get lost in the noise. Talk to someone for 20-minutes about the harmonica or the frequency of lightning strikes around the globe and you can be sure that you will stand out.
Go with a friend
When in doubt, guilt-trip a buddy to going with you. Just knowing that you know at least 1 person in a crowd makes a ton of difference. Even if you split up once you get there, it is comforting to know you have a security blanket of someone you already know to talk to in case you need it. And if the event sucks, at least you have someone to laugh about it with.
Nobody cares what you say
This may sound a little depressing at first, but I actually think it is really empowering. The beauty of being in a social setting where you don’t know anyone is just that, nobody knows you. If you say something stupid or put your foot in your mouth, guess what? Chances are that you never have to see those people again if you don’t want to. Maybe you aren’t quite as prolific in putting your foot in your mouth as I am, but the logic even works for boring superficial conversations. Don’t stress about making an impact on every person you talk to. See point number 2 above. If you aren’t jiving someone and you just can’t get them to bite, don’t stress. They won’t remember.
**For the record, I think this tip has a ton of applications outside of networking, especially when it comes to creating content online. People are too afraid of what other people will think about what they say. The truth is, if you say something dumb (like I have many times), no one will care (unless you say something really, really dumb or offensive). On the flip side, make some interesting points and people will take notice. Minimum downside. Maximum upside.
Pick a color, any color
This is a fun one that I picked up from a podcast. If you are anxious about a networking event, pick a color. When you get to the event, talk to everyone there who is wearing that color. It’s that simple. I don’t know why, but for some reason having a mission when you walk into an even (talk to everyone wearing green) really helps. I enjoy this one so much I even went as far as to buy 6-sided dice on Amazon that have different colors on each side. Before any networking event, I roll the die and try to talk to everyone wearing whatever that color is. I don’t know why this one works, but it does. Give it a try.
Go against the grain
I picked this one up from Tim Ferris. When you get to an event, look where everyone is focused. It may be the food table or a celebrity whose attention everyone is trying to get. Ok now see that group focus? Head in the exact opposite direction. It is tough to stand out in a crowd. Give yourself the best possible opportunity you can by going against the grain and doing stuff other people aren’t. This means going to the more esoteric info sessions. It means doing the weirder activities. If you are doing things differently than everyone else, people will take notice. And even better, you will see the other people who are doing the same. Those are the people you want to talk with.
Hopefully this post is as helpful for you to read as it is for me to write. Mental health is hard. Talking about it makes it less so.
As with most things, overcoming anxiety is a slow and painful process.
Each step feels like you aren’t making any progress.
It’s only when you look back that you see how far you’ve come.