During my freshman year of college, the most common career advice I received was to network. I hated that term. Its very prospect made some part of me shrivel up.
Unfortunately, I used my disdain of networking as a license to be self-righteous and saw people who preached its merits as disingenuous. I thought networking was all about hustling people to get them to do something for my benefit. It felt so transactional.
With my holier-than-thou attitude, it's no surprise I didn't make many friends freshman year. Unknowingly, I shut myself off to new connections because I saw business school as a zero-sum competition with everyone trying to get one over on everyone else. I railed against the tyranny of networking by meeting no one at all.
I completely missed the point.
Obviously, I can never know the exact intent behind every person who encouraged me to network, but I may have misinterpreted their advice.
I thought networking was nothing but hobnobbing with powerful people who could open up doors for me. However, I've realized it's not your superiors that change who you are, but your friends.
Justin Bieber and Kanye West's talent manager, Scooter Braun, says it another way:
“The mistake of youth is thinking that the mentors you need are older than you. That you should work on getting in a room with some powerful person because that’s going to change your life. It’s not true. What changes your life is your peers… The people you rise up with. They’re your power base. Not the person who’s already done it.”
I had unwittingly attached my stained understanding of "networking" to the process of making friends. Consequently, instead of seeking people who were smarter, sharper, and harder-working than me, I avoided them out of insecurity.
Networking, as I understand it now, was never about forming transactional relationships to charm other people into serving my agenda. It was about working to meet people who would elevate my personal standards because theirs were so high.
The value in surrounding yourself with "high achievers" lies not in what they can do for you now or in the future, but in the person they could make you through sheer association with them.
If you're the average of the 5 people you spend the most time around, their habits, attitudes, and standards will become yours, good or bad. If you make friends with other high-performing students, just having relationships with them will elevate your definition of normal.
My biggest regret from freshmen year was shutting myself off from the very people who could've made me better. Our peers have the power to uplift us or distress us. To find the former kind, start by saying hi.