I go to the playground with my two daughters a lot. On any given day of the week, you can find me chasing my toddler through tunnels and castles with my baby in tow.
Most of my time at the playground is spent talking to parents. As such, my network of parents has increased tenfold. Something I’ve realized lately? Networking on the playground isn’t that much different from networking in your professional life.
Odd connection, right? I mean, “networking” is one of those words that probably makes many of us cringe. It makes me feel weird, too. I’m never keen on the whole formal event structure; the idea of “selling yourself” automatically lends itself to phoniness; and the whole transactional nature of it is just slimy. And really, what’s the likelihood of getting a job from one of these things anyway?
But I understand networking is something we do all the time, whether we’re conscious of it or not. Here are three things I’ve learned from the playground that can make swinging into networking easier and more natural:
Being genuinely excited about where you spend your time will make you more open to new people and new experiences
I take my kids to the playground because it’s sunny outside, I only have to walk two blocks to get there, and it’s the one place in the neighborhood that truly feels democratic. You aren’t going to get kicked out because you can’t afford tuition or be discriminated against because of your skin color.
I also like how there’s no structure or agenda. I usually just follow Hattie wherever she goes - to the pole one minute, the twirly thing the next - and see what happens. Sometimes nothing does. Occasionally she falls and I need to do some shoddy first-aid. Most times, though, I’m standing by the slide next to another parent because like me, they want to make sure their kid doesn’t break an arm or throw woodchips in another’s face.
We could say nothing. But that would be boring. And awkward. So I ask how old their kid is. Or they make a comment about why they prefer this playground over the one a few blocks away. The next thing you know, we’re commiserating about the joys of having a “threenager” and how we completely get sleep deprivation as a torture device.
This openness, both to other people and experiences, has carried over to my professional life.
In general, I found it easier to connect with people when I just skipped over the whole, “What do you do?” question and instead asked, “What are you hoping to learn here?” At a recent event about the job market here in Oregon, I ended up participating in a “crowdthank” afterward for the event host, Mac. Organized by SuperThank, a local volunteer collective in Portland that’s all about community gratitude, the “crowdthank” was to show how appreciative the city was for his almost two decades of service to job seekers.
I’d been doing the usual table chit chat with someone I knew when the event organizer came over and asked if we could help recruit people to stand outside and surprise Mac when he walked out. I said “yes” because I’d heard of SuperThank before and liked what they were doing. Plus, I was comfortable in the space because the hosts had made it feel warm and welcoming and not so schmoozy, and I’d never once declined something that was spontaneous and fun and could turn the night’s expectations on its head.
Outside, while we were writing why we were grateful on tiny pieces of paper and queuing up for a makeshift conga line of thanks (yes, a conga line), I ended up speaking with more people than I did inside at the event. This is where the networking truly happened.
Vulnerability can be a powerful connector
Being a parent is one of the most vulnerable things you can do. Your heart is splayed open the minute your kid arrives in the world, and it never closes.
Nor is it contained to just your kids. When I’m out in the world, my joys are obvious and so are my stresses.
At the playground recently, my six-month-old daughter Marvi was exhausted and having a hard time going to sleep. She was screaming like a velociraptor while Hattie was whining for me to push her faster on the swing - only to flip out when I did. As if that wasn’t frustrating enough, I’d have to bend down every five seconds to pick up Hattie’s shoes that would inevitably fall off with each upward motion. Shoes that, just ten minutes before at the house, we were arguing over because they were five sizes too big but pink and sparkly and therefore a must.
It took everything in me not to scream myself. A mom standing nearby with two boys the same age apart as my girls saw me gritting my teeth, heard the increasing annoyance in the inflection of my voice when I said Hattie’s name.
“You know,” she said. “It took me about a year to like my toddler again after the baby was born.”
I wanted to hug her for having the courage to say aloud what I’d been thinking for months.
Because she was so vulnerable from the get go with me, a stranger, we could skip all the normal conversation pleasantries and get right to it. I learned that not only did we both have two young kids, but we were both part-time moms constantly toggling back and forth between career and motherhood. She was a member of my tribe.
Because I’ve experienced firsthand how incredibly supportive and resourceful the parent community is, I find myself wanting to return the favor in other areas of my life.Vulnerability as an instant bond proves true for my work life, too. At a content strategy conference last year, whenever I sat down at a table to eat with people I didn’t know or were waiting for our session speaker to arrive, I had no hesitations in telling people it was my first time there. Or that I had no idea what content strategy really was. I was nervous and unsure and didn’t care about keeping up that pretense.
That same conference, I seemed to always arrive at my hotel room the same time as another attendee who was rooming next door. One night we got back late after drinks at the bar. As I was turning my key in the door, I casually mentioned the fact that I had night terrors and not to be scared if I suddenly screamed about a giant lizard coming at me. She laughed and told me she snored loudly. We ended up being buds the whole conference, chatting about everything from our music tastes to message architecture. Maybe confessing our personality ticks had nothing to do with it. But maybe it did.
In general, I found it easier to connect with people when I just skipped over the whole, “What do you do?” question and instead asked, “What are you hoping to learn here?” That automatically lent itself to talking about not-so-ideal job environments and knowledge gaps, and most people seemed relieved to let their guard down. We were all there because we wanted to grow, after all.
While it was awesome that I walked away from the conference with more business cards in hand and LinkedIn invitations to approve, it was those conversations I valued more than anything.
The real joy in networking is learning from others and building community
I gave up parenting books a long time ago. I don’t have the time or attention span to read one all the way to the end - I’m lucky if I get through one blog post these days - and I find that good old fashioned word of mouth is much more effective anyway. (Remember when we weren’t all looking at our phones every second of the day and actually talking to one another?) Now, most everything I learn to do as a parent is from the playground. I’m not kidding.
Parents have suffered through so much trial and error with our kids that we’d love nothing more than to share our insights. Drop phrases like “sleep training” or “hidden vegetables” and we’ll gladly spill all faster than TMZ can post a photo of Kim Kardashian. We can’t let all those hours gaining that knowledge go to waste.
The playground is rife for crowdsourced wisdom. Standing by the sandbox, I’ve learned that teaching Hattie to “take turns” rather than “share” is more effective. While watching the merry-go-round spin, I’ve gotten the lowdown on the best and worst bilingual schools. At the tire swing, I’ve been privy to intel on where the hottest mommy massage spot in town is.
Before being a mom, I’d never thought that spending so much time on the playground could help my career. Most times I leave the playground with information that’s going to make my life better in some small way, and I couldn’t be more grateful to be a part of this community. I’ve seen the same parents over and over again on the playground circuit. Some of them I’ve ended up inviting to birthday and holiday parties, with others our relationship is confined by the monkey bars. And that’s okay.
No matter our relationship, these parents both on and off the playground are some of the most supportive, resilient, and creative people I know. They see me on my good and bad days. They listen when I need them to. Pat me on the back just when I feel like I’m failing. Encourage my creativity. Insist that I give myself grace.
Because I’ve experienced firsthand how incredibly supportive and resourceful the parent community is, I find myself wanting to return the favor in other areas of my life. I say “yes” often when a friend or colleague reaches out and asks me to meet with someone. I’m always having coffee or hopping on the phone or Skyping with people I don’t know. I’m curious to hear about their lives, and how I might be able to help or connect them in some way to further their passions.
Just like at the playground, I always leave those conversations enriched in some way. I never go in with the mindset of what’s in it for me, but usually it’ll result in new knowledge about a cool resource or an interesting local project or more intangibly, inspiration for my own life.
Sometimes the relationship ventures beyond a professional connection. When I was working for Idealist a few years ago in Buenos Aires, I met with a woman about volunteering opportunities for expats in the city. We connected on a deeper level - we were both writers and had partners who nerded out on video games - and developed a friendship while there. A couple of years later I ended up going to her wedding in NYC.
More recently, I had coffee with a guy who’d met a colleague of mine at a conference. He was an English professor who was exploring how he could use his intersecting interests of sustainability, literature, and music for the common good. We connected on a few levels, and the next thing I knew, he was inviting me to his house for an open group dinner he and his wife hosted every Wednesday and even offered to take a look at my short fiction.
The takeaway from all this is you never know how one area of your life will impact another. Before being a mom, I’d never thought that spending so much time on the playground could help my career. But being open, honest, and authentically engaged are good practices whether I’m standing around the swings or standing around a wine and cheese table.
Wiping Hattie’s boogers isn’t so icky anymore. Neither is networking now, too.
By Celeste Hamilton Dennis