Illustration by Emily Keniston

Networking can be nerve wracking. For the introvert or homebody, it can seem downright terrifying. Being told to go out, meet people, mingle and sell yourself at various kinds of networking events is a move you might not want to make and may wish you could just skip it altogether and jump right into a professional role you know you’ll succeed at. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen and at some point we’ll have to open our mouths, but it doesn’t have to be a formal, scripted or even a business focused conversation.

One of the biggest requests we as young professionals get during our pursuit of a rewarding career is to tell the person in front of us about ourselves. If you’re like me, it almost feels impossible to answer this in just a few minutes. When given the chance, I never say everything I wanted to say or could have said in retrospect, but being able to talk about ourselves, our goals, unique qualities and accomplishments is a necessary skill when making professional connections. It is through the sometimes uncomfortable process of networking that opportunities are offered, and even if you don’t thrive in the traditional way of networking, it’s still possible for you to be successful.

I have found that some of the best and most effective networking situations happen organically and from simply being yourself. It’s been my experience that talking to someone on a personal level usually leads to opening up about more professional topics and opportunities effortlessly. This can happen in a variety of settings and situations.

Such a situation occurred during a casual visit to Savannah with my mom one summer. We went to visit a gallery owned by Tiffani Taylor, a SCAD alumna I’ve admired since freshman year. Taylor herself greeted us warmly when we walked in and as we began talking, great things started happening. I told her I was a SCAD student and I gave her my business card. Then my unexpected opportunity came. She looked up at me and said, “Wait, I know who you are!  You follow me, don’t you? I love the work you’re doing.” She told me she was looking for an up-and-coming artist to feature at the Savannah Art Walk’s after-party and she chose me, an opportunity that also led to her requesting to sell some of my work in her gallery. It was a dream come true. I was stunned and though I was somewhat starstruck to finally be standing in front of one of my favorite artists, I was completely myself and it was received well. We have since remained friends, and she is one of my greatest professional connections. Sometimes it’s worth taking a break from looking for opportunities and just let them come to you. Being in the right place at the right time is a great networking moment if we recognize it and seize it.

Another great way to low-key network is by participating in internships, especially those that are operated by only a few people. Think small businesses, niche art shops or studios and galleries. Seeking work opportunities like these that you’re confident about thriving in will help you make those lasting connections that could lead to a long term career path. For me, working with a few people allows me to open up more fully about my creative work, what I’ve done and what my goals are. I interned at a small printmaking studio in Atlanta one quarter and when my commitment was over, I received a surprise email roughly a year later about a teaching opportunity at an art center in Atlanta I didn’t even know existed. It turns out that one of the women I interned for was asked to take the place of the teacher for a summer camp class at the art center and couldn’t, but because I had opened up and spoke to her at length about my creative work and goals, she recommended me for the job, one that I still have today.

Networking doesn’t always have to be done in person. Sometimes it’s easier to act boldly online to let people know you exist. I think it’s a great idea to reach out to the people who inspire you. I’ve sent out a few heartfelt emails to artists and have not gained employment opportunities necessarily, but I’ve made genuine connections that have opened the door to valuable resources, insights and other connections that would not have been gained otherwise. It’s a trickle-down effect that can be rewarding if done the right way. You’ll get your name out there little by little, and eventually you’ll become someone somebody remembers. You have nothing to lose by reaching out to your favorite artists, introducing yourself and simply letting them know how their work influences you or why it excites you. You never know what might happen. Just remember to approach it with a genuine heart.

Traditional networking is not for everyone. It can be an intimidating, disorienting and untamed situation when you’re among a group of people all doing the same thing, armed with their elevator pitches and resumes in hand. It’s a wild world that can be hard to navigate and one where the quieter voices may have a harder time being heard. If that’s not how you work, then go against the grain. Visit your favorite artist to say hi if you can, reach out to cool professionals on your laptop in the middle of the night, take on a neat job run by a handful of people that do what you do and above all, be bold in the way you know how. There is no secret formula for success. Find your own path to success on your own terms, in your own way, at your own pace and with your own voice. If you do that, the connections worth making will be made, and that’s all that matters.