These days I speak to strangers four times a week for an audience of millions. But you couldn’t have predicted that during my childhood.
As a kid, I had crippling social anxiety that made me uncomfortable being around others. It led me to start skipping school. I’d love to say I was the cool type of truant, driving Ferraris, going to museums and ending up on a float, singing in a parade (Bueller, Bueller…), but I was the not-cool truant. I was the type whose parents found him playing video games in his underwear when they returned home.
Somehow I managed to graduate from high school and get into the University of Michigan. Four years later, while I watched my friends get cool jobs, I was mostly directionless, even with a degree in hand. After some halfhearted attempts to find something to do, I decided to go to law school, because everyone told me I could definitely get a job afterward, and it would buy me three more years to figure things out.
Before I knew it, I found myself at a top law firm on Wall Street. Surrounded by all of that brainpower and hustle, I suffered from a new type of anxiety: impostor syndrome. Obviously I had fallen through the cracks, and they didn’t realize I wasn’t supposed to be there. I knew I wasn’t going to get better at “lawyering” and my competitive advantages of hustle and street smarts had evaporated. Everyone at my firm was smart and willing to work just as hard.
There was one exception to this seemingly endless barrage of client memos and conference calls: Dave. Dave was a very tan lawyer from Brooklyn, who was rarely, if ever, in the office. He had hired me and had even been assigned to mentor me, but I never saw him. Curious about him and desperate to find out anything to help me move forward in my career, I reached out to the human resources department and mentioned that I had not seen Dave yet. He was predictably thrilled to have to come in and give one of his two checkbox mentoring sessions required within the summer, and soon I was across the table from him, nursing a coffee while he banged away on one of those old BlackBerrys.
“So,” I blurted out nervously, “why are you never in the office?”
He stopped typing and leaned across the table: “Who’s saying that I’m not in the office?”
I tried to backpedal as softly as I could, simply saying something to the effect of “some people” noticed he was rarely there, and asked whether there were a secret to his work.
“Yeah, the secret is that I bring in the deals that keep this firm going.” For the rest of our time together, he told me about taking meetings in the Hamptons or going on charity cruises or golfing down in Florida. All of these were simply opportunities to engage with people who could turn into clients. Dave brought something to the table that nobody else had. He stacked social skills on top of his lawyering abilities, and hence, he was paid to network and create relationships. I, on the other hand, was being paid to check for misplaced commas in 1,800-page documents.
“Always be giving” puts you in a perfect position to “leave everything better than you found it.”
While I had been fascinated by social dynamics before, this meeting with Dave was a real turning point for me, and I began to dive deeper into what was then a nascent field. I began to design my life not to mimic Dave’s, but to take advantage of the same matrix as Dave. I began to see a world full of people, and saw the power of a personal network and how much intentionality had to be brought into building it.
As I Always Say
Around this time, I co-founded a training company to help people better understand social dynamics. Our work has helped people overcome self-confidence issues, create greater career and business success, improve their family bonds and even have better luck with the dating scene. We called the company, and the podcast that we produce, The Art of Charm.
Over time, I reduced the complexity that loomed in front of our students and listeners to two simple sayings. The first was a variation on a phrase made famous by Alec Baldwin in the film Glengarry Glen Ross. Whereas Baldwin memorably pounded into the luckless real estate brokers to “Always be closing,” I opted for “Always be giving.”
As I went about intentionally building my network, I excluded transactions. I wasn’t interested in networking in the same smarmy way that some of us know it. I wanted to build relationships with good people. These relationships could lead to opportunity, prosperity or flexibility, but that wasn’t the point. I led with value. I always try to figure out how I could help others without the expectation of anything in return.
That dovetails into the second phrase, which is the tagline for The Art of Charm as a company: “Leave everything better than you found it.” This was most certainly not inspired by Alec Baldwin, but was rather a way to express the core of what the study of social dynamics and personal development meant to us. The field was so unstudied, with so many unwritten rules, and it was easy to fall into meaningless tropes, like, “put yourself out there,” or “just be yourself.” Those literally meant nothing to me and my co-founders.
We wanted something meaningful and actionable that was entirely unambiguous. It meant we weren’t playing for the next quarter. We were playing for the next quarter of a century. If I was looking at each interaction from the perspective of how I could give and that I should always leave something better than I found it, it meant I wasn’t focused on myself, but focused entirely on others. The byproduct of this generosity was that, as time went on, great opportunities came our way.
In a conversation last spring, a colleague told me that he discovered an excellent job candidate simply from a chance conversation at a happy hour. I seized on this example to point out that when you look at the very best networkers, their opportunities seem random and the result of luck. But it isn’t that. If you are open and friendly, if you take the time to follow up, if you don’t keep score, unsurprisingly, good things flow back to you. In this context, being lucky in networking is not chance; it is rather a skill set that you can learn, build and teach to others.
Networking has a bad name because of those highly motivated self-starters who are always throwing business cards at you during random mixers. But networking isn’t something you do—it’s an always-on mindset. If I can avoid thinking of networking as something that I turn on and off, but rather as a positive way to be, I can reinforce my notion to give constantly.
I haven’t always been at my current level of networking. I’ve seen the quality of guests we have on The Art of Charm podcast rise as I have developed and improved into the sort of guy who interesting people and experts want to speak with. Through practice I now possess the requisite skills and conversational chops to engage them in a way that delivers real value to our listeners, and not simply subject them to the same boring stock questions they might get on many other podcasts. I’m practicing what I’m preaching because I don’t really have a choice: This is my business and my life.
Interviewing these high performers week in and week out on The Art of Charm is gratifying because as I see the generous and selfless habits of my guests, I’m reminded that our simple path is correct.
Related: How to Build Good Relationships
This article originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of SUCCESS magazine.