Social engagements mean different things to different people. For some, they're an occasion to get together with old friends and share some laughs. For others, they're a chance to maybe meet that special someone. For me, social gatherings are much more than that: They're a golden opportunity to hustle for contacts.
As a computer consultant who makes nearly 40 percent of his income doing freelance web design on the side, I have to be networking 24/7. If I relax at a cocktail party, picnic, or memorial church service, I might as well forget about making my career dreams a reality. Every minute I'm not hustling for contacts is money down the drain.
Sure, I make a decent living. But if I don't use my grandparents' 50th wedding anniversary to seek out potential new clients and partners, what right do I have to complain if I don't succeed in this business? Not much.
At any given social gathering, I'll spend maybe 90 percent of my time working the crowd and looking for new people. (A stranger, after all, is just a client you haven't met yet.) The other 10 percent is for touching base with old contacts and glad-handing the event's hosts so that the invites keep coming.
Don't get me wrong: I don't approach every person I see at a party. You have to be selective about the people you associate with. I only focus on chatting up people who can help me further my goals. Given the choice of talking to a brilliant historian or a guy who's got small-business contacts up the wazoo, I'll take Mr. Well-Connected every time. There are millions of people in this world, and life is short. Why waste time with folks who can't offer me anything when there are plenty of perfectly nice people who can?
Learning to recognize the right people to approach at a particular event is a vital skill. A nephew's eighth-grade graduation ceremony, for example, can put you in direct contact with 300, 400 people. But only a handful of those hundreds are probably worth talking to. If you're in the tech game like me, keep an eye out for folks wearing polo shirts with embroidered logos of computer companies. Also, terms like "ethernet" and "routing systems" are good words to have your hustling-radar set to pick up.
In the event that someone you approach turns out to be not worth talking to, you need an out. Luckily, there are tons of good getaways. It can be as simple as a quick over-the-shoulder glance accompanied by, "Oops, looks like the wife needs me." There's also the "going to the bathroom" trick, but then you have to head in the general direction of the can, which can take up valuable time better spent talking to a guy who knows a guy who works at Adobe Systems.
Hustling for social contacts isn't something that just happens. You have to make it happen. To this end, I can't stress enough the importance of a nice business card. Case in point, I went to a costume party a few weeks ago. Now, there aren't a lot of places to put a business card when you're wearing a Spider-Man suit, so I fashioned a card-holder utility belt. And thank God I did, because I passed out 75 cards at that bash. And from those 75 lucky people who learned about my business, I received two e-mail inquiries. That, my friends, is smart partygoing.
People are always asking me if I ever take a break from hustling for contacts. The answer is no. Meeting and making the most of every friend of a friend or business associate of my ex-wife is the reason I'm in this game. I'm not going to stop making contacts until I'm dead. And when that day arrives, I'll get one of my priest contacts to put in a call to the man upstairs to get me a better seat.