A Nation Of Networkers

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Like many men of my generation, I have learned a great deal not only from Games Mother Neuer Taught You but also from books with titles like The Managerial Woman, The New Executive Woman, The Working Woman Success Book , and so on. Such books purport to teach women a variety of no-nonsense lessons that men are assumed to have learned in Little League. Judging from my own experience, the authors overestimate the value of Little League as preparation for the corporate jungle. When I am looking for worldly advice, when 1 feel the need for a shot of straight-from-theshoulder cynicism, I do not go to any of the old boys in my old boys’ network: I go to the books in which women tell women how to make it in a man’s world.

Where else but in Games Mother Never Taught You , for instance, would 1 have learned that helping other people in my office marks me as a corporate sucker. Noting what she describes as an “excessive devotion to duty” among women in the work force, Harragan needs only three sentences to demolish the illusion that “pitching in” is a virtue in business: “Redoing someone else’s work is not your job. Assuming responsibility outside the parameters of your function is not your job.… Someone else’s failure to perform is not your problem.”

When I feel I need a shot of cynicism, I go to the books in which women tell women how to make it in a man’s world.

But that’s just the start. Where else would I have learned what to do when a prospective employer asks for my current salary (“lie”), or what view to take of salary negotiations (“substantial raises have little to do with ability or achievement and nothing to do with personal self-worth”), or how to spend my first weeks on a new job: “I was all over the place, ‘getting acclimated.’… The first time some smart aleck ‘forgot’ to pass along a piece of information, I waited till the next staff meeting when the manager was present and innocently said, ‘Last week Joe accidentally forgot to tell me about such-and-such. Is there anything additional I should know about today’s subject that might not have reached me?’ ”

These are games that my father never taught me, and I’m grateful to have Harragan as my mentor. She offers exactly the counsel that a young man needs if he wants to compete with the women who accompanied him to business school and among whom he now jockeys for position in the overcrowded ranks of American middle management. Though it aims for an audience of women, I suspect that Games Mother Never Taught You is the secret weapon hidden in the briefcase of many a bright young man who has outpaced his competitors on the corporate fast track over the past few years.

What has especially impressed me in the women’s self-help literature is the insistence upon the legitimacy of pure careerism. The emphasis on networking —the acquisition, cultivation, and exploitation of professional connections —is a good example. On this subject a soft-minded fellow might feel some squeamishness, but he can buck himself up with a dose of tough-mindedness from The Working Woman Success Book , where he comes upon the example of a woman executive who says, “I used to think it wasn’t ‘nice,’ that it was ‘using’ people, to make friends with someone because of his or her job or because of their possible usefulness to me later, but I’ve learned. …” “Basically,” the same book assures the reluctant networker, “it’s not a case of ‘using’ people for your own ends. It’s exchange for mutual benefit, the trading of information, ideas, and favors.” In this formulation, networking is seen as nothing less than a twentieth-century rebirth of Adam Smith’s famous “invisible hand”; a society of self-interested networkers, each single-mindedly pursuing his or her ends, will trade favors in a way so mutually advantageous that the good of each becomes the good of all.

Networking is a new name for an old game—a game that fathers like Willy Loman never failed to teach their sons. “It’s not what you do,” Willy exclaims. “It’s who you know and the smile on your face! It’s contacts … contacts! The whole wealth of Alaska passes over the lunch table at the Commodore Hotel, and that’s the wonder, the wonder of this country, that a man can end with diamonds … on the basis of being liked!”

I myself am a great believer in networking, and my eagerness to play the game has caused me considerable frustration. Here I am, ready to plug into my network, but I can’t seem to find the outlet. I feel the way Esau must have felt when he tried to claim his birthright, or perhaps I feel the way Esau would have felt if his sister had claimed his birthright, or perhaps I feel the way women feel when they look at men.

Where are the old boys, anyway? I suppose that for a few of us, the old boys are cherished classmates from the good old days at Choate, Groton, Exeter, or some comparable establishment. As an outsider it seems obvious to me that preppies belong to a network, in exactly the way that it seems obvious to women that men like me belong to a network.