Paul Kennedy & (Making) Friends

It is quite clear that Paul Kennedy has the ideal job—meeting with brilliant and active minds to discuss revolutionary concepts and fresh perspectives, then threading those conversations in waves through cars, homes, computers, and earphones across Canada. Unfortunately, we cannot all be hosts of CBC’s Ideas, but Kennedy’s fourth-year seminar with SASAH’s first graduating cohort has provided students with a glimpse of what our lives may very well be like in the future: surrounded by sharp, successful, world-shaking friends.

Particularly in our final year of university, the word “networking” is thrown around and sought after at every opportunity. Professors, companies, parents, and peers all stress that networking is the key to a smooth transition between a successful undergraduate experience and a successful job, and it’s a justified concern since approximately 80% of job postings are not searchable online. The term often sends a tremor through my chest, the anxiety of having to walk across a room and introduce myself to someone (who may or may not be the key to unlocking the shackles of student loans) tightening in my throat. Suddenly I can’t speak, I’ve forgotten which hand to shake with. Some people really enjoy networking and, for them, the necessity outweighs the nervousness. Some of us aren’t so lucky.

One of the biggest problems is the way we think about networking. A “successful connection” sounds like something my computer might say when I plug in a printer it recognizes, or perhaps something my bluetooth speaker announces when it recognizes my phone. Going up to someone and introducing yourself cannot feel comfortable when you know that you’re going to plug in niceties and key information about yourself in a quick two-minute pitch in hopes of their recognizing you as something they can use or register. It feels too strategic, too mechanic, so much so that it becomes increasingly difficult to truly connect with the human being in front of you.

While sitting in one of Kennedy’s classes it is likely that you will hear of at least five incredible contemporary minds who have achieved great success, and they will be mentioned spontaneously, nonchalantly, and always with the preface: “a good friend of mine.”  These are people that he works with, people that he has worked with in the past, and people with which he has had the privilege to create long lasting relationships. Clearly being the host of Ideas plays a part in his connections, but what Kennedy emphasizes with each new guest he brings into the classroom is that networking is so much more than using one another for mutual gain; it’s about sharing, thinking critically together, and making friends.

It’s important to know that the people on the other side are also genuinely interested in sharing in your ideas. On March 10th SASAH held a networking event with the Advisory Council Members in Toronto, facilitated by Western’s Alumni Relations Coordinators. Tables were set up with a couple Members at each, and students rotated around the tables and spoke with each member about ideas—ideas about the future, about SASAH, about careers, about philosophies of life and education, and about networking itself. Personally, the idea of spending nearly three hours presenting and proving myself to established community members, while also trying to figure out what it is that I plan for my future (still not sure anyone can truly do this), seemed daunting at best. However, once I realized that I was, in fact, speaking to humans who have been in the exact same place as I am, it became so easy to find that common level of sharing and mutual understanding.

Friendship is something we often reserve for those in our close personal circles, but it is a helpful and healthy lens to use in other parts of our lives as well. A vital element of friendship is mutual understanding, and what better way to establish an understanding than in the face of an actual idea? Instead of asking personal questions about someone’s past or feelings, those personal details can be teased out from their binds of privacy when one shares their opinions or thoughts on a subject. Friendship can be created by linking minds in a mutual idea, testing it out, expanding it, criticising it, and working together. Kennedy could not make his radio show alone; he relies upon collaboration to unearth innovative or intriguing information for his listeners. The vital piece here is that he has a genuine interest in ideas themselves—whether he is on board with them all or not—and he has demonstrated that interest by being adamant on learning the equal amount that his students do during his class. Kennedy’s genuine interest in ideas resounds in his radio voice and helps his conversations flow organically. He asks rich questions of his guests, and his genuine interest for the answer establishes a mutual respect in the face of an idea, regardless of whether they agree on all counts or not.

Kennedy has brought some of the world’s brightest and bravest journalists, environmentalists, motivational speakers, chefs, philanthropists, athletes, and human rights lawyers to Western’s campus and the city of London, and he was able to do so not because he plugged in the right information or struck up a mutually beneficial deal, but because he went so far as to make friends with those he encountered in his field of work.

This is all to say that networking is not just about personal gain; it’s also about sharing. Acknowledge that you have something to share, or that you have the ability to contribute to someone else’s ideas, and use that as the basis for a genuine connection—get interested. Approaching someone intimidating when you aren’t hyper-conscious of the stakes, and, instead, focusing on an idea—which fundamentally cannot be stratified—might be the way to overcome anxiety about networking. Ideas have the power to create bonds between people, from all sides and all perspectives, if they are approached with respect and a desire to share and understand one another.

Kennedy told the fourth-year class,

The SASAH cohort has mixed in it the likes of business women, visual artists, historians, writers, scientists, politicians, and more, and with one good look it’s not hard to surmise that perhaps we’ll all be able to casually mention a Nobel Prize winner or a celebrated genius as “a good friend of mine.”

Feature Image: Maryam Golafshani – Michael Stadtländer in conversation with CBC’s Paul Kennedy

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