Remember that scary moment in the cafeteria on the first day of high school? You’re dressed to impress and holding your lunch tray as you scan the room. You’re attempting a nonchalant sort of swagger, like you’re looking for someone in particular, but let’s be real...you’re deciding who appears friendly enough to accept you into their fold during the sacred lunchtime hour.
You scan the room, silently wondering who to approach; you're seeking someone who appears normal and friendly. This is crucial to your high school experience. You will choose your circle of friends, with whom you will spend every day for the next four years. They will (hopefully) help you through the particularly awkward teenage years, have your back when you need them, and vice versa. And as you stand there with your orange tray, your self-consciousness amplified enormously, you realize you can’t just stand there. Your executive decision needs to happen now. So, you make a snap decision, and walk toward a table with an empty seat, trying not to trip, and hoping the table occupants wouldn’t say, “Oh, someone’s actually sitting here already.”
For many introverts like myself, avoiding situations like these seems to be the instinctual--we think it's better to try to achieve goals on your own than to put yourself out there in the professional world at conferences or networking events. The anxiety you felt as a teenager in the cafeteria can (and will) prevent you from landing opportunities and connections that you would have never made organically, if you allow it to.
I am one of those introverts who thought to myself, “You’ll just stand there silently and feel completely awkward. What’s the point?” The point is, by stepping out of your comfort zone, you can not only catapult yourself toward success, but also fast-track that process. It will almost certainly be the best career decision you will ever make. Much like your circle of friends back in high school, these other professionals attend “mixers” for the same reason. They are also looking for their community, a group to offer advice, to pull strings when they can, and generally do what friends do: help you succeed in any way they can, as you would do for them. Your professional circle of contacts is crucial to your professional success.
Like any other goal you work toward, it’s best to start small. Put yourself out there in places you must interact with strangers, like the grocery line. Get used to the feeling and hone the skill of connecting with them. You can then move to bigger things...try Toastmasters, join a book club, take a course in something you were always interested in, or take yoga, cooking, or jewelry-making classes. Slowly, but surely, you will find it easier to chat with new people, and you may even be pleasantly surprised to discover that you enjoy it.
Hone your social skills until you believe you are ready to apply it to your professional world, and then tackle those mixers with confidence. Before you know it, you will have cultivated the essential skill of forming a professional circle of friends. You'll also have the pleasure of watching that expand in years to come. Just remember to bring a stack of business cards, a pen, a firm handshake, and (always) a smile.