The networking that matters is helping people achieve their goals. Doing it reliably and repeatedly so that over time people have an interest in helping you achieve your goals, because they have a stake in it.
– Seth Godin
I wouldn’t call myself an introvert, but I am definitely a not-extrovert. I am reasonably good at meeting new people, but only for the same reasons that I am reasonably good at building websites or playing chess: I’ve treated it as a problem that can be solved through directed thinking and deliberate effort.
As a geek, I see getting one’s social life off the ground not as a lottery, but as a knowledge activity. Clearly there are wrong ways to go about meeting people, which means that there must be right ways to go about it too. I don’t believe in premeditated interactions — the only script I offer is “Hi”, with the rest left as an exercise to the reader — but there is a lot to be said for foundational knowledge: cultivating the right attitude, managing your expectations, embracing rejection, setting goals, and so on. Ultimately, problems in your social life are just like any other kinds of problems: they can be identified, characterized, and worked on.
One of the most common questions I get asked by social skydivers, both male and female, is: Where the heck do you meet people?
In fact, having recently moved halfway around the world — from Montreal to Berlin — it’s a question I’ve had to ask myself. But even though I arrived here less than three months ago, I’ve already started to weave my way into the fabric of Berlin life. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some really interesting people and have enjoyed getting to know them.
In this article, I’ll share with you the approach I’ve taken, including a list of the specific events and activities that I find most useful for bringing me into contact with the kinds of people I want to get to know.
Developing the Right Approach
Before I list my favourite places to meet people, I’ll start by outlining the principles I use to come up with these ideas in the first place. Using these guidelines, you’ll be able to tweak my later list of suggestions to fit your own tastes.
- Who can you help? Not just in a humanitarian sense, but in any sense that involves enabling other people to achieve their goals. For example, if you’re a geek working at a startup looking for Ruby programmers, why not visit your local Ruby group and spread the word? If you speak French and English fluently, why not go to a language exchange group and help other people become fluent too?
- Go open source. Don’t try to copyright your connections. The best way to build your social life is by giving things away, including your knowledge, your time, and your support.
- It’s not about meeting people, it’s about building things. Or learning things. Or teaching things. Shared pursuits are the ultimate social lubricant. When you have a common goal, you don’t have to try to meet people, it just happens. If you actually care about the interest that brought you together, you will need each other to advance.
- Be flexible. Remember the Weird Idea Radar? Turns out this is more than just a tool for discovering your passion — it’s also a great way to meet people. If you want to maximize your social potential, then you’re going to have to be open-minded. If you’re wondering whether some group is really your kind of thing, do it. If looking at their website makes you wonder if you’ll be the only person who shows up at the next meeting, do it. If you’re unsure whether you even know enough about the subject matter to talk about it, DO IT! Be willing to act on uncertainty. I’ve discovered some of my favourite interest groups by plowing through my initial hesitations.
- Be creative. Meeting people requires a capacity for original thinking. You should always be thinking of ways in which you can offer value to others, not as an entertainment monkey of course, but as a volunteer, a connector, and an enabler.
- Be an initiator. A lot of people wait for others to make the first move. I’d be lying to pretend I’m not guilty of this myself at times. I know there are at least a few people I should know a lot better than I do right now, but I’ve been waiting for them to inaugurate our friendship. And I can tell they’re probably waiting for me to do the same. But building social connections is not a game of chess — in a stalemate, both people lose.
- It won’t happen overnight. Allow for at least a few months before you expect to start connecting with people outside of the groups that brought you together. This is especially true if the group meets only once or twice a month.
Where to Meet People
With the above principles in mind, here are some of my favourite places to meet people:
- Philosophy groups. The more focussed, the better. You needn’t be a diehard adherent to the group’s philosophy to participate. For example, I’d hardly call myself an Objectivist, but I am a fan of Ayn Rand’s work. So I got involved in the Montreal Objectivist Club over a year ago and remained a member right up until I left for Berlin. Good food and great discussions which never failed to challenge my way of thinking.
- Couch surfing. CouchSurfing is a travel community that helps people wander the world by making it easy to find, and share, crash space. While this is particularly useful if you’ve just arrived in a new city, it’s also a great opportunity for locals. CS’ers organize regular parties and other events, and travelers are a fascinating bunch to get to know. I attended some CS events in Montreal. My polyglot buddy Benny travels the world acquiring new languages, and uses CS as a key part of building his social life in foreign places.
- Expat forums. This is also not limited to out-of-towners. Most people on expat forums are keen to mix with locals. In Berlin, I’ve made ample use of Germany’s most popular English-speaking expat forum and I’ve found many Germans present at the gatherings I attend.
- Meditation groups. You needn’t be New Age to sit quietly in a room with other people. I’m an atheist, but I find meditation to be a great way to relax and refocus.
- Language exchange groups. To language junkies, the benefits here are obvious. But even if you’re monolingual, you can still use your mother tongue to help others learn the language. It was through attending a language exchange group in Berlin that I met Lijit founder Stan James. He’s a brilliant guy to converse with, and we’ve parlayed our interest in German into discussions about startups, social media, the paradox of choice, “procrastiflation” (the idea that the likelihood of completing a task decreases exponentially with every day you put it off), and various other geeky subjects.
- Coworking. Coworking means sharing an office space with other people who would otherwise be working from home too. This is a great way to meet people who share the social challenges of self-employment. Coworking environments often bring together people with complementary skill sets — graphic designers, web developers, photographers, marketers, copywriters, etc. — which tends to create lots of opportunities for everyone involved.
- Take your online activities into meatspace. I did this a couple years ago with online poker. I started participating in real-life tournaments and met lots of people who were equally passionate about the game. Recently, I’ve replaced the time I normally spend playing go online with going out two nights a week to my favourite go clubs in Berlin.
- Toolchains are social objects. People love getting together and talking about the tools they use to build things. I’ve attended many different programming language groups in Montreal and more recently attended an Ubuntu BBQ in Berlin.
- Political change groups. I’m cheating a bit here, because I haven’t yet done this one myself. But I will soon be on my way to Vancouver and I am really looking forward to participating in ChangeCamp, which its website describes as “an open community and a set of tools and ideas designed to give citizens and governments the ability to work collaboratively in new ways to make change and to better address real-world challenges in our communities.” Wordy, but intriguing.
If you’re serious about getting your social life moving, I would encourage you to try every one of these suggestions, even if they seem a bit outside your range of interests. In the worst case, it might cost you an evening. But trying something that doesn’t work is never a waste of time if it brings you closer to finding something that does.
So now that you have some ideas for developing the right attitude to building your social life, and several examples of where to meet interesting people, how do you put these ideas to work? Here are three ways to get started:
- 30-day challenge. Make a commitment that, for the next 30 days, you will go to some kind of event or activity at least two nights a week. Be willing to stretch your definition of a good time if you have to. The priority is to get out of your house. I did this from the moment I arrived in Berlin (but more like four or five nights a week) and it is the main reason why I feel connected to this city, rather than feeling like an outsider who has a hard time breaking through.
- Initiate, Initiate, Initiate. Make a list, either in your head or written down, of all the people with whom you have wanted to initiate a get-together (e.g. to hang out outside the gatherings where you normally see them), but have been too shy to do it. Then do it! Try for a minimum of at least three people to get started.
- Where do you meet people? Add a comment below to share the specific activities that have worked best for you. While suggestions like “user groups” or “taking a course” are useful, it’s easy to overlook exactly what those might be. So the more detailed your suggestions, the better.
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