Natasha Lyonne’s advice for making connections when you feel like an outsider

“You gotta leave the house in this life.”
“You gotta leave the house in this life.”
Image: Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP
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According to a recent poll, 94% of humans would rather turn into a can of tuna every night than go out and make professional connections. That is a statistic that is made up. And yet it is a deeply moving fake statistic because it speaks to a universal truth: Meeting people who can help you succeed in your chosen field is both necessary and, particularly when you are trying to break into a competitive industry, so daunting as to seem impossible.

If you are a tuna-can kind of person, actor Natasha Lyonne has some helpful advice for you. Speaking at The Cut’s How I Get It Done conference in New York City on March 4, Lyonne, who co-created and stars in the new Netflix series Russian Doll, offered up a simple two-step program for anyone who’s ever been intimidated by the prospect of networking.

Step 1: Leave the house

“You gotta leave the house in this life,” Lyonne told a member of the audience who’d asked for advice about forging contacts. Personally, she noted, “I don’t want to do anything ever … If you give me a day off, my dream is to stay in bed all day.” We feel safe when we are in bed, where no one is going judge us for our awkward conversational skills and perhaps there is a funny TV show to watch on our phone and a dog or cat with whom to snuggle. “That kind of cocoon is so safe,” she said, “that it’s very tempting to not exit.”

And yet one must leave the house from time to time, not only to drop off dry cleaning and say how-do-you-do to passersby, but also to perhaps attend an event and socialize with people one does not know very well, some of whom may work in your industry of choice. This is, to many people, a living nightmare. And yet, Lyonne believes, it is possible to muddle through.

“Once I’m already there, I’m okay,” she said. “I’ve got my cellphone if it gets really bad … I’ve got my crossword puzzles.” Worst-case scenario, you spend a lot of time by the snack table trying to come up with a four-letter word for a predatory seabird. Best-case scenario, you meet Oprah or Bill Gates and they are so struck by your wit and verve that they immediately volunteer to mentor you. Either way, don’t feel bad if you’re one of the many people who get anxious about rubbing shoulders with your peers: As Lyonne said, “I think that leaving the house is a crucial element of participation in life that is very instinctual to want to resist.”

Step 2: Remember that no one is a nobody

The other thing to remember when making professional connections, according to Lyonne: Be kind and curious about everyone, rather than setting your sights only on those who are more powerful than you.

“Every person is a fully realized person,” she said. Not only is it wrong-headed to dismiss others in your field simply because they don’t have a lot of sway, getting to know people across every level of your profession tends to pay off down the line. “In my experience, all of the assistants at the management companies who seemed like lost puppies a decade ago are now the bosses of the company.” Much of professional success, Lyonne noted, is essentially an “endurance test.”

As Lyonne’s Russian Doll co-star Greta Lee added, none of this is meant to deny the realities of nepotism and other factors that create barriers to entry in many fields. But the secret, she said, is to keep “playing the long game,” while keeping a lookout for people whose ideas inspire you. “Once you find people who have similar brains, you hold onto those people,” Lee said, “and that is more valuable than anything.”