Just as I've recently realized that I've gradually evolved from a self-proclaimed child prodigy into a grey-haired voice of experience, I've also found that I've come to know a lot of important and influential people.
Just in the past week, seemingly at random, I've had friends who are spending the day with Bill Clinton, launching a new critically-acclaimed show on NBC, and helping to run some of the biggest enterprises in the world.
The funny thing is that I've never been one of those networkers who, a la Ferrazzi, uses a careful plan to climb the social ladder. I've just wandered the world in my usual haphazard way. But with hindsight, I can see that I actually did follow a few basic principles that seemed to be very successful.
1) Seek out situations with lots of smart, ambitious people.
There's a lot of talk about how elite educational institutions aren't worth the money. I'm here to tell you that's a load of crap. The main reason I know people outside the world of the Silicon Valley startup community is because I happened to attend both Stanford University and Harvard Business School. The folks I met and the friends I made during my (admittedly expensive) years in the hallowed halls represent an incredibly broad spectrum of achievement in different areas.
You should also choose your employers carefully. Because I worked for D. E. Shaw & Co., L.P. (see David, I'm still using the proper name for the company), which is even more selective than Stanford and HBS, I got to know even more interesting and talented people. I doubt the same would be true if I worked for a different company.
These kinds of institutions provide a target-rich environment, obviating the need for any carefully planned strategy or approach.
2) Don't limit your relationships to people who seem immediately "useful."
I see people make this mistake all the time. They gravitate towards the folks who seem immediately useful. They jostle and pit dive for the opportunity to speak to the already rich and famous. That's generally a waste of time. Instead, you should build relationships with as many smart and interesting people as you can, regardless of how immediately useful they might appear.
Indeed, the most important criteria for building relationships is whether or not you like a person and find them interesting. Expending effort to build a relationship with someone you neither like nor respect is an onerous chore that's unlikely to pay off.
3) Stay in touch, and stay genuinely interested in people's lives.
Naturally, once you find a smart and interesting person, stay in touch. Figure out how you can help them. For God's sake, don't be one of those people that only contacts someone when they need something.
By staying in touch over a long period of time, you build a solid, persistent relationship. That sort of relationship is far more likely to be mutually beneficial.
Some people think of relationships as a vein of ore to be mined..."Don't contact them too much, or you'll run out!" That's exactly the wrong way of thinking. A relationship is something to be nurtured, and each contact should increase its strength. If not, you don't have a real relationship.
4) Wait 10-15 years.
This is both the hardest and easiest part. When I was young, older alumni would assure me that someday, I'd be glad that I went to Stanford. Or Harvard Business School. I wasn't always sure what they meant. After all, doesn't simply being a member of the club give me a leg up?
Now I understand. The key alumni network are the people you already have relationships with, not the rich and famous (though I will point out that even as a student at HBS, Jamie Dimon was kind enough to return one of my calls--don't dismiss the power of the network!). Wait 10 years after b-school, or 15 years after college, and your old friends will be hitting the peak years of their careers. And guess who people always prefer to work with--the people they know and trust, especially if that relationship stretches out over decades of experience.
While it may prevent me from ever writing a best-selling book on this topic, I'm happy to share my secrets. But that's the thing--they're not secrets. There is no trick.
Just get to know smart, interesting people, keep building your relationships with those you enjoy spending time with, and wait for time to work its magic. Good luck, and get started!