Social media has given rise to the age of the self-proclaimed thought leader. Maybe they style themselves ninjas, disruptors, innovators or change agents. Whatever the moniker they are out there and there sure are a lot of them. Should you choose to believe the hype, they are the biggest of the big thinkers, the Star-Bellied Sneetches of thinkers if you will.
For a time I immersed myself in networking hoping to meet the big thinkers, the gurus and the rule breakers. I wanted to learn from the best and brightest. I dashed from meetup to meetup, panel to panel, conference to conference, soaking up all that big thinking. My dance card was full almost every night. I tweeted. I hashtagged. I namechecked. I played the social media game to the hilt. I basked in the glory of all that thought leadership mere steps away.
After months of aggressively pursuing networking opportunities I started to notice a few things.
The same people spouted the same tired opinions on panel after panel. There would be an occasional blast of truly original or even radical thought, but all too often everyone was reading from the same script. The law of diminishing returns set in. The more I went, the less I learned.
With so many panels, conferences and meetups there just weren’t enough brilliant minds to go around. Somebody had to fill those chairs up on those stages. Every event seemed loaded with a bunch of inexperienced speakers selling boilerplate conventional wisdom or just showing up to pitch their company or product. Everybody gets a trophy!
The audience was often bored. More eyes were focused on smartphones than on what was happening in the room. All the onlookers looked as if they were thinking, “Hurry up and let’s get to the part where we exchange business cards.” It wasn’t that much fun.
The end of the night scrum to hobnob with the speakers was always awkward. Business cards sliced the air like throwing stars and the rules of civility were tossed aside by the rabble. Plus, there was always the added bonus of chatting with someone while they half listened and kept a vigilant lookout over my shoulder for someone more important.
What did I learn? I became an expert in buzzwords. I shook hundreds of hands. I made a lot of small talk. I ate a lot of pizza. I collected bushels of business cards. Yes, I did meet some great people and even made a few friends, but it was usually too much work for little reward. In the end, I mostly got bored and wanted go home.
The real lessons are simple. Choose the right networking opportunities with an emphasis on quality over quantity. Make sure the speakers are really at the top of their game and have something brilliant to impart. Try to make a few genuine connections at an event instead of working the room. If in doubt, go workout or head home instead. There are plenty of better uses for yout time.
Sure, some days I want to dust off my business cards, polish up my hashtags, get out there and shake some hands. Then I look at the choice in front of me. This week’s alleged thought leaders or spending time with family and the things I really love?
Yeah, I am heading home.