In college, and then law school, career counselors always pronounced Networking just like that—in italics and with capital letters, as if it were a foreign proper noun or something. They made it sound like Networking was a formula: schedule meeting, exchange cards, and Presto!, you’ve got a job. Or a mentor. Or a client. Or something.

Do things without any expectation of referrals or business. That’s not the point, even if it is usually the end result. This isn’t marketing. It’s un-marketing, if you need a buzz word.

Eventually, I figured out what most people who are successful at networking eventually figure out: Whatever Networking may be, real networking is just getting out and doing things with people. It doesn’t necessarily require an appointment or a suit or a stack of business cards. In fact, it is usually better without those things.

How to fail at networking

The one surefire way to fail at networking is to try Networking while you are networking. Go ahead and whip out your business card and try to talk about how you can “add value” to someone else’s business while volunteering at the homeless shelter or watching Monday Night Football with your college friends. See how well that works.

The harder you try to Network, the less well you are probably doing it. People generally don’t like it when you try to sell yourself to them. Or beg from them.

What things to do and which people to do them with

So what kind of things should you get out and do with people? Anything. Eat breakfast. Drink beer. Go to a game. Volunteer (not necessarily doing lawyer things). Play kickball. Have a barbecue. Go to a fundraiser. In other words, do normal things.

Do things without any expectation of referrals or business. That’s not the point, even if it is usually the end result. This isn’t marketing. It’s un-marketing, if you need a buzz word.

Whatever you hope to get out of networking—mentoring, referrals, clients, friends—here is the only real formula: Get out and do things. With people.

Which people should you get out and do things with? Friends, neighbors, family, colleagues. Pretty much anyone.

You can even network online, if you want to. There is no magic to that, either. Make friends. Build relationships. Take them offline.

Skip the gurus; learn to make friends

There are a lot of consultants, coaches, and gurus out there who will charge you a lot of money for their 60-day marketing boot camp. I’m sure there are crystals or pyramids or chihauhas involved, or something. If you are tempted to turn to the next marketing guru coach you see for a magic Networking formula, save your money, because I’ve got the secret right here: Get out and do things. With people.

In other words: make friends.

It’s hard to come up with a “system” for making friends. You have to make it sound really important on which lapel you to put your name tag, and over-analyze what you should say as you hand over your business card. And none of that will help, because it’s Networking, not networking.

You know who knows, likes, and trusts you? Your friends. And probably a lot of your acquaintances.

So make friends.

I know this scares the heck out of the introverts, who would much rather sit and home and bang out LinkedIn updates. But no matter how effective your social media campaign (and I have my doubts), getting out and doing things with people is the most effective way to generate referrals, find mentors, and discover resources.

Whatever you hope to get out of networking—mentoring, referrals, clients, friends—here is the only real formula: Get out and do things. With people.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevehwuk/2220696943/)