My friend Ben Casnocha is the co-author of the NYT/WSJ #1 bestseller The Start-up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career. He wrote the book with LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and it explores mindsets and techniques for navigating the rapidly changing world of work.
(Full disclosure: I’m referenced in the book as a case study.)
Ben and I spoke about how your career can benefit from Silicon Valley strategies, what most people get wrong in forging professional relationships and how to be an expert networker.
My conversation with Ben was over an hour, so for brevity’s sake I’m only going to post edited highlights here.
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Live Your Life In “Permanent Beta”
The name “permanent beta” is derived from the software industry where the word beta of course refers to software that’s still buggy, that’s not quite ready for prime time, that’s available only for light, internal testing.
About a decade ago Google forced all of us to think differently about the word “beta” in the software context by shifting Gmail to market as a fully functioning email product that quickly amassed millions of users and hundreds of millions of emails processed while still officially being in beta.
People initially were confused by this: what’s a product that seems to have no bugs, network’s just fine, that’s live on the production server doing in beta? Google did this to signal to both employees and to users that Gmail wasn’t finished, that there were still bugs to be worked out, improvements to be done and that while it was good it wasn’t, and never can be, good enough.
If you map this to individuals it calls to mind one of my favorite lines from Benjamin Franklin who apparently, when he woke up in the morning, used to ask himself, “Will I go to bed tonight smarter than I am right now?” You roll out of bed, you ask yourself the question, “Will I go to bed tonight smarter than I am right now,” which is a pretty intense question but speaks to his unbelievable commitment to self-improvement, his unbelievable embrace of the fact that there’s always more he can learn, always ways he can get better.
I think this is a central idea for every individual to believe in in order to be a competitive entrepreneurial business of one in this economy because for too many people when they list on their resumes, to quote a UC Davis professor, who we quote in the book, “They list on their resume 20 years of experience in marketing. What they really mean is they have one year of experience repeated 20 times.”
For so many people who even I know they are actually not growing very much on a day to day, week to week, month to month, year to year basis and that ultimately leads them to not be very competitive. That’s a long winded way of explaining that permanent beta is a mindset to the world. It’s not a negative mindset. It’s an optimistic mindset, that basically is, “I have pride in the fact that I’m a work in progress, that I can always get better and I am committed to doing that and this commitment is foundational to my competitive advantage in the marketplace.”
What You’re Doing Wrong When You Try To Network
I think most people think about it too much in a business context and too much in a professional-only lens and not enough about it as relationships are relationships are relationships. We talk in the book about personal context and professional context but notwithstanding some contextual differences in how you talk to people forming a connection with someone, being likeable, helping someone: these are ideas that are central to human life, central to a romantic life, central to the friendship generally and central to the way business gets done, trust gets established in the business world.
I’m amazed when I encounter people that are kind of obsessed with their romantic life and read relationship books and are in therapy talking about the ex-boyfriend who got away but then, at the same time, say they don’t know anything about networking or don’t want to network or they hate getting coffee with people.
What I try to remind them of or present to them or ask them to consider is the basic idea of connecting with someone, forming a connection, trying to be helpful, discovering shared interests; those are things that you do when you’re trying to date someone, they’re things you do when you try to become personal friends with someone, they’re things you do when you’re trying to become closer to your uncle who you haven’t seen in a few years and they’re things you do when you’re taking a colleague out to coffee or meeting someone in your industry who’s also trying to get ahead.
Find Common Ground
There are some basic things that I do fairly effectively that Reid does and what you do, Eric, which is: be interested in the other person, ask questions, gather information that allows you to search for common ground, basic stuff. It’s basic but it’s not easy. It’s amazing how many people don’t do those things.
The old saw that opposites attract is really not true; that’s been shown over and over again in any sense, whether it’s romantic or business or whatever. Like minds attract. People like spending time with people who are like them.
There’s really no excuse, given the web, to go into any conversation with a new person or an existing connection not being up to date and not have this rich history and be able to probe on that and deepen a connection around shared interests or shared people.
Start An “Interesting People Fund”
Psychologists sometimes talk about pre-commitment strategy which is this idea that if you pre-commit yourself to do something with money or time or some emotional thing you’re more likely to follow through on it than if you just try to vaguely commit to do something and then when it comes times to do the action you fail.
There’s this guy in Silicon Valley who went to Stanford, spent many years in the Bay Area building a powerful network of entrepreneurs and investors but he wanted to spend some time away from the Bay Area because he’d been here for too long, got stir crazy and wanted to do something else but didn’t want to let his network to atrophy. His name’s Steve Garrity. He didn’t want to let his network atrophy while he was gone.
After he committed to working at Microsoft in Seattle he had a lot of anxiety around all these relationships he’d built in the Bay Area. He took the amount of money that he was going to save living in Washington State as a savings off his income tax and pre-committed that to what he called “an interesting people fund” which was a fund to fund flights and coffees and dinners with interesting people in the Bay Area.
The deal was that if anyone interesting in the Bay Area, to a point, invited him to a dinner, coffee, whatever, he wouldn’t think twice, he wouldn’t fret over the airline cost or whatever, he would get on a plane from Seattle to San Francisco and do the meeting, have the coffee.
He was ultimately away for several years but when he came back just a few years ago he actually founded a company with one of the women who he had seen regularly on his interesting people fund visits. So it all worked out nicely.
Pre-committing $100 or $1,000 reduces the likelihood that when it comes time to actually do the thing you know you ought to do, you bail.