July 26, 2006

Why I hate networking … but really like AFF

By: David Skinner

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards went to school together; so did all the members of U2. The same is also sometimes true of pundits. Take Fred Barnes and Brit Hume, who went to high school together.

Southern novelists Walker Percy and Shelby Foote also knew each other at a tender age. In another well-known case, an American president grew up in the same household as two U.S. senators. You may have heard of them: the Kennedys.

Success, the meritocrats like to remind us, is more likely to be bred at college, with increasingly rational stratification by IQ and class, a trend I imagine continuing through courtship and marriage, if those ads in the New Yorker for Ivy League dating services are to be believed. Graduate school is where the trend specializes some, divvying up future professors from future managers and so on. If intermarriage occurs, the offspring become professors of business.

But what if you are cursed with the hunger for success and not to the manor born? And what if higher education seemed to be, well, just the beginning of the search? Then you have to find the people who are going to help you along. These are usually people also looking for help — for themselves. I heard of an art school teacher who told his students that if they wanted their art to be remembered, they should recruit some friends and start their own schools of art. There’s more fame in numbers than without, he reasoned.

This, I like to think, is the reason America’s Future Foundation exists. Sure, the panels are excellent. They, like BRAINWASH and DOUBLETHINK, help train young, politically-minded libertarians and conservatives in the arts of persuasion. And the job board is helpful. Add to this impressive lineup of programs a couple of new ones: AFF Radio and AFF Underground. But the underlying purpose is networking, an unfortunate word in my book, as it reduces human beings to nodes on an electrical grid or otherwise condemns them to the status of inanimate material for the sake of not-quite-apt systems metaphors.

I remember just before graduation, at a cocktail party, the college president’s wife politely inquired about my plans. I said I wanted to go into journalism or some other kind of editorial work. “Do you have a network for that?” she asked. “Kind of,” I said, “I call them friends.”

But there you have it. Networking means finding and hanging out with the people who are going to help you make the most of what talent you’ve got. The most important ones are your friends.

Your friends. Not your parents’ friends, the ones who kindly take your phone calls after graduation explaining to you a few things about how the world of jobs and careers work. Not even your parents. Once they’ve done their genetic best and raised you right, there isn’t much else for them to help you with. Unless they’re extremely involved and extremely patient. Because the most difficult decisions you need to make as an adult require more information than they’re willing to collect to effectively advise you. Only your friends will listen to hours upon hours of agonizing over the difficult boss or
the tricky job application. Friends or maybe a spouse — yet another person you (and not your parents or some abstraction like your class or your upbringing or whatnot) personally choose from the tumult of people you meet.

There’s a mythology, even in America, dynastic determinism, which holds that in most cases, success is locked up by your family. Maybe in some rarified cases, like the Kennedys, but in most others people achieve some version of success by working hard and choosing their friends well. It’s more often like the art professor’s formula than those of the various social Darwinists.

Which is where AFF comes in. It’s a way of improving one’s chances of finding the right people — chatty, political people of the right who may be working on the same questions you are, people who have an unusually deep sympathy for your own professional and personal situations, people from whom you can learn, people you can teach.

It’s not a club of PLUs or “People Like Us,” to borrow a phrase I just recently learned from an AFF friend. (That I didn’t know this phrase means, I fear, that I am no one’s PLU.) There is little snobbery about this friendship organization. The animating spirit is rather an openness to whatever the person standing next to you at the happy hour has to offer, no matter where they work presently, no matter how hip or completely un-hip they might seem. And it doesn’t much matter if their Republicanism is descended from a long line of GOP bigwigs or whether the editor of Reason magazine knows their name. They pay the same amount for overpriced drinks and win or lose by how well they think, talk, and write. They are your social capital, your network, your newest friend.

And here’s to them, and to you, and to us, on the occasion of ‘ tenth anniversary.

David Skinner is editor of DOUBLETHINKand an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.