Con-men and the key to making connections

The Roper would travel the country, dangling the carrot of effortless profit. If someone shows interest, he gains their confidence by showing them how to make easy money. The money they make comes out of his own pocket.

​But that doesn’t matter. It’s an investment. He’ll make it back ten times over.

After the mark has been shown proof that he can make a profit, he’s taken to meet the Insideman. The Insideman guarantees he has the mark’s confidence by letting him make even more than before. The mark has taken a risk twice, and won both times. He’s convinced. He’s hooked.

The Insideman now shows him a secret, another dishonest way to make an even larger amount of money. The talk would turn to how big an investment the mark was willing to make. Hundreds? Thousands? Tens of thousands? He’s seen their methods work twice. The third is a guarantee. He’ll go big.

The mark travels to the bank to cash out his investment. Upon his return, he’s escorted to a big store, basically a set, where everyone present is in on the con and playing a role. The mark hands over his money, and is told to sit tight for a couple of days while the deal goes down.

During his wait, the mark gets a call. It’s all gone wrong. Someone has died. The authorities are on our tail. We have to go to ground. Everyone has lost money. Best not to stay in contact.

We’re sorry.

Meanwhile, the Fixer is circulating amongst the local and the national law enforcement, bribing, intimidating. Usually, the mark would be scared and embarrassed about his loss. But if he isn’t and he gets suspicious, he turns to the might of the law for support. It’s the Fixer’s job to make sure that his complaint goes nowhere.

This is how David Maurer, in The Big Con describes the process of a confidence game in the early twentieth century.

Maurer, further on, makes a remark about the Roper. It is the Roper’s job to circulate, on the railroads or the steamships or in the clubs, and find a mark. A mark who’s dishonest and wants a large reward for little effort. Maurer, talking about this search for a new victim, says that “a con man never meets a stranger.”

Which got me thinking about networking.

The Roper knows he is looking for a man with little integrity, a lot of money and an appetite for shady dealings. He knows who he is looking for and where to find them and he puts himself there.

We should learn from this example. How often do we go to events or sign up for something, whilst not knowing what we’re looking for?

I always get the impression that people sign up for networking not because they’ve really thought about who they need in their lives to solve their problems, but because they’re crossing their fingers, hoping they might meet someone interesting.

As if favouring blind luck is a better option than carefully targeting where they appear and who they appear to.

When it comes to meeting people, or just strategy in general, absorb this line: “effective predators excel at engineering situations that skew the odds in their favor.” Please note, it doesn’t say control every thing that happens. You can’t do that. But you can “skew the odds”.

Why do we even engage in networking anyway? What does it have to offer?

Because we want to create opportunities for ourselves. And the best way to do this is to prepare, to choose the situations we expose ourselves to, not roll the dice on something we haven’t really thought about.

The point of your networking efforts is to find a way to help others so you can help yourself. To do that, you have to be the right person in the right place at the right time. It’s a blend of genuine altruism and shrewd self-interest.

You do this by never meeting a stranger and engineering situations that skew the odds in your favour. Not by going to a local networking event. Unless you live in Silicon Valley, or Austin, or a hotbed for your industry, the best in the world aren’t where you are.

They’re probably not even networking. They’re probably practicing, learning, solving problems. They’re doing, rather than talking about doing with people at drab conference centres.

But where’s the room for lady fortune? What about randomness and chance? That plays a part in meeting people that change your life doesn’t it? Definitely.

For instance, I read Antifragile a couple of years ago. Boom, life changed. This led me to Seneca, and Stoicism, and in turn to the work of Ryan Holiday. Boom. Life changed. This led me to read all of Robert Greene’s work. Boom. Life changed.

I didn’t meet these people. I discovered their work and it changed my life.

The role that chance plays in your life is also determined by what level of the game you are at. Newcomers and amateurs play by different rules than established professionals and seasoned veterans.

When you’ve made it, when you are established as an authority, you fight differently. You can leave your locality and journey to meet the best in the world. You have more control over your situation, and how your allocate time, energy and attention. This is desirable, but dangerous.

The urge is, once you have that control, to use it to impose order, structure and rigidity on your life. You know what works. It got you here. So you cut away the fat and harden your habits so you can keep doing what brought you here.

You used to say yes, yes, yes to every opportunity. Now that you’ve made it, your default has to be no.

In contrast, newcomers have to invite chance and opportunity. Your life is a series of yes, yes, yes. You do everything you can. You scramble. Your problem is the reverse of the established. You don’t risk having too much order, you risk having too little. You work another job. You have to do the time-consuming tasks that the successful can outsource. You have to work around other commitments. You can’t afford to travel far or give away large chunks of time, because you don’t have much to spare.

The newcomers and the veterans operate on the same playing field, but they’re playing a different game. The difference is how they connect with people.

The professional can take the time to engineer situations. He can ensure that he never meets a stranger. He can be the right person at the right place at the right time. If there is a good opportunity he can back it with the full weight of his considerable resources.

This allows him to be around the best and learn from them directly. He still invites randomness and volatility into his life, but rather than it overrunning his life, he chooses carefully which parts it affects.

The newcomer has only two options.

First, be really fucking good. Austin Kleon, in Show Your Work quotes Steve Albini, a record producer, who says “connections don’t mean shit.” Kleon describes how “Albini laments how many people waste time and energy trying to make connections instead of getting good at what they do, when “being good is the only thing that earns you clout or connections.””

This option is mandatory. If you’re good at making connections, but awful at what you actually do, sooner or later the delicate structure you’ve built will collapse and crush you.

The second option is to invite opportunity. To “maximise serendipity” and “collect opportunities” as Nassim Taleb puts it in Antifragile. You have to put yourself in a lot of places. Not random locations that have no connection to what you do, but sources that serve the audience you want to see your work and the people you want to learn from.

Good news for the newcomer. It’s easier to be discovered now than it ever was. It’s also harder. The lower barriers to participation broaden the field of competition.

Have you ever tried to sell services or sites like Freelancer or Fiverr? I have. Nobody wanted to hire me.

I’ve bought from there too. You know what I do? I choose the people with experience, the people with reviews and a portfolio to show. I avoid the newcomers and the unproven. I do the opposite of what I wanted people to do for me; take a chance.

When you’re starting out, you have no reviews, no testimonials, no previous customers. Social proof, one of the most influential factors in selling and persuading isn’t an option.

Fortunately, you don’t need a customer to start doing. You just need to start.

In the absence of great connections and great resources, it’s hard to get noticed. Your options are limited. But you still have some: Don’t waste your time on networking and events that the best in the world aren’t attending. Put yourself and your work in locations that increase the chances of it being discovered by the people who matter.

And perhaps most important of all, B.R.F.G.