Dear New Shrink,

I recently graduated from college and have been actively seeking my first real job. I keep hearing that my success will come from networking but I have no idea what to do when I don’t have a network to start with. I feel strange about reaching out to people I do not know and asking them for a job. What should I do?

Signed,

Novice Networker

Dear Novice,

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the concept of networking. Our minds often go to a big room filled with lots of people where you are forced to introduce yourself to a million strangers, when in fact networking can be broken down to a much simpler process.

Networking is simply developing and then maintaining the contacts and personal relationships you create. There is no complex method or magical process to networking. In fact, you’re probably already networking: when you volunteer, talk to your neighbors, chat with someone while waiting in line, an even in virtual ways, like posting messages to a blog or on website discussion board. You can network with the various everyday things that are already part of your life.

Networking does not need to be a huge, complicated process; rather it’s something that can become a natural part of your life. To make use of networking however, it should go beyond your job search. Maintaining a relationship is much more than just asking for favors. Keep in mind networking is about being genuine, real, and most importantly yourself.

Be smart in your networking strategy. Think of the people you already know who seem to know everyone else. These connectors are fundamental to your networking success; they are the key to opening your networking door. If you are only “networking” with friends and family that you know well, then you are limiting yourself to new information and opportunities. Extending your network will help you to connect with those who operate in diverse circles with different people who ultimately have access to new information and resources. With new people in your network come new opportunities that you would not otherwise know about.

Expand your network with things you already enjoy. Consider joining a local athletic league or volunteer organization; you’ll naturally have at least one thing in common with the people you meet which will make conversation much more comfortable. You can apply this same strategy online by joining groups on LinkedIn or Facebook that relate to your hobbies and professional interests.

It’s also important to keep in mind that networking is not asking for a job or making cold-calls to people you do not know. Rather it is talking to those you do have a relationship with and asking them to introduce you to others. You can build your network by helping others meet new contacts too. Building your network is a give-and-take system; if you are hoping to be connected to new people you need to be able to offer the same to your contacts.

The best advice I can offer is for you to be the one who connects others. You do not need to put together a big event, one of the easiest techniques is to introduce others over e-mail and let them do the coordinating. When your contacts or acquaintances see you as a valuable connector they will want to reciprocate the offer — your network will grow before your eyes. You need to bring something to the table, otherwise you may risk becoming the annoying acquaintance who is always asking for favors but not providing anything in return.

Just in case you need the motivation to get started, networking has a number of great benefits. From learning more about a particular career to gathering job leads, the opportunities you create through networking are endless. Visibility is key to your success.

KATRINA DAVY, M.A., Ed.M, is a Santa Monica-based professional career counselor. She holds degrees from Columbia and Cornell universities. Send your questions to newshrink@gmail.com. All questions are kept anonymous; let us help you with your life matters!