Professional networking can be daunting when you don't know anyone. When I first moved to New York and decided to try my hand at being a writer, the only people I knew were a handful of friends, none of whom worked in the industry I was trying to crack. I had no experience and zero contacts, but I knew what I wanted and all I had to do was figure out how to get it. Here's the secret they don't tell you in school: if you put your own initiative into the things you want, you might get them. I'm not saying that being proactive about your career is going to give you the instant gratification of everything you want all at once, but it might set you on a path that informs the rest of your professional life.
It's a long road from having no career to having your dream career (unless you're very, very lucky), but the good news is that the journey is full of learning experiences, excitement, and interesting people. It's sometimes challenging, and a lot of the time can also be awesome fun, especially if you're doing something you really care about. The first step to finding your way professionally is networking. Jobs, of course, are based on merit, but having your merit noticed is sometimes benefited by "who you know". So when you start meeting the "right" people, you can pass off your resume in different directions, to make sure you don't just get thrown on top of a stack of other equally qualified candidates.
The things is, everyone is vying for that great opportunity. What can really set you apart is putting in the time and effort to really make industry connections, which will not only help you get a leg up when hiring time comes, but is also a great way to learn about the practical comings and goings of the particular industry you're interested in. Here are some networking tips for when you're just starting out, and don't know anyone:
1. Use social media
When I was starting my career as a writer, I spent a lot of time searching for other writers in the digital realm that I enjoyed reading, and who worked at publications I admired. I started following them on Twitter, and began conversations. It was a really simple way to not only get inspired, but to see how other people were building their careers. Interacting with people online is also a great way to get their attention, and even email to ask for advice. Interestingly enough, five years after the fact, a writer I liked who I emailed for career advice is now one of my best friends. Meanwhile, others have notified me of job opportunities or recommended me for work based on mutual interactions online. Contrary to what people might tell you, great things do come from social media.
2. Say "yes" to everything
Obviously, within reason. If someone asks you to do something you're genuinely uncomfortable with, and not just because it might be a little socially awkward, you don't have to do that. Meanwhile, when getting asked to events, drinks and other social occasions, it pays to be a "yes" person when you're just starting out. When I first moved to New York this was the most valuable piece of advice I was given by a friend. When I'd meet people and tell them I was just starting out being a writer, they'd say things like "Well I'm going to this book launch tomorrow night, you should come!" and not knowing a soul except this person I'd known for thirty seconds waiting in line for the toilet at a bar, I'd trundle alone. Yes, it's scary, and there will be a lot of weird standing alone and not knowing what to do with your hands, but it's also the time when you'll put yourself out there, because you're not sitting in the corner gossiping with an old friend. I met a lot of people just by going to things I was invited to, and after a few times, you'll get the hang of it, and you'll be a pro at rolling solo.
3. Ask for help
Nothing is going to just fall into your lap. People who seemingly have things fall into their laps are super connected already. No one just starting out ever sat back and had things handed to them. Ask. Talk. Explain. Tell people what it is you want. You don't have to be abrupt or demanding or rude, you just have to be articulate and clear about your aims, needs and desires. Put together a list of everyone you know who might have a contact in the industry you're trying to break into, and ask all those people for those contacts. Then ask those contacts for help. There is no shame in asking for help when it comes to networking and getting your head above the clouds when you're just starting out. Eventually, people will be calling on you for help, so everything comes back around and you'll be able to pay it forward.
4. Go out for coffee
As well as asking for help, ask for coffee. Make another list of people a few steps ahead of you in their careers that you admire. I mean, make sure they're accessible, otherwise you might be in for disappointment. For instance, if you want to be a writer, set your sights a bit lower than Harper Lee. She's already got stuff on. Think of all your favorite writers at the websites you look at frequently, and Tweet at them, or cold email. Ask to buy them coffee and pick their brains. I used to do this a lot, and it didn't often result in an actual coffee (sometimes it did!), but when it didn't people were always more than happy to answer my questions via email, and maybe remained professional contacts after we built up a textual rapport.
5. Don't wait for people to come to you
Do you think Beyoncé just said "I'm going to be a pop star" and just sat there and waited for her Fairy Godmother to come along and turn her into a pop star? No, she didn't. She got her a** up out of bed every day and worked hard. Don't wait around for things. If you've asked for help and you're not getting it, move on. Find another way to get that help. Don't indulge in the blame game that someone didn't help you so that's why things aren't happening. There are many routes to building your career and your network, so busy yourself in exploring them all. Go out and actively seek the things you want, because no one is going to bang down your door and bring them to you.