Interview: Karen Wickre.
Karen Wickre has worked in and around Silicon Valley for years as a corporate writer. She’s developed stories and styles for Google, Twitter, and many startups. For instance, she joined Google when it employed 500 people; nine years later when she left, it employed 50,000. She advises a range of companies who want a strategy on their messages and the content they produce.
She has a new book: Taking the Work Out of Networking: Your Guide to Making Connections That Count. For many people, “networking” is a major happiness stumbling block, and Karen Wickre shows how we can connect with other people in a way that feels authentic and positive.
I couldn’t wait to talk to Karen about happiness, habits, and productivity.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Karen: My long-time daily habit is something I call “keeping in loose touch.” Every morning when I sit down to whatever work awaits on my laptop, I warm up by virtually connecting with a few people. I scan my Twitter feed and my overnight inbox, and as I scroll and graze, various people come to mind: someone I know who’s interested in the same political story or entertainment obsession; someone whose company is in the news; someone whose favorite team (or performer) just triumphed or bombed, someone who popped into my brain as I saw an item of interest. And when I see that item—an article or post, a photo, cartoon, video, gif—I immediately send it along with the briefest of notes: (“thinking of you”, “OMG! How are you?”, “catch up soon?”). These notes (which are not transactional, and don’t demand a reply) can be via email or a private message on whichever social platform we two share. I usually send a handful of these every day, creating a moment for the two of us. The net effect on me (and I hope for others) is a feeling of gratitude and connection. I’m reminded of the variety of friends and allies who are in my corner, as I am in theirs.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
When I was 18 I thought of happiness in vague and broad terms. It would come eventually when I’d have an Important Realization on a long beach walk, or when I had obtained some combination of a good job and good home life. Now I know that long beach walks are not usually where life-changing realizations hit. I know that happiness is less dependent on your surroundings, or the actions of other people, than it is about your own sense of yourself. I also am relieved to know that small instances of happiness are everywhere, and can be gathered whenever you can be in the moment.
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?
As I asked people—introverts and extroverts alike—why everyone seems to hate the idea of networking, I got these sorts of answers: it seems phony; too transactional; embarrassingly hollow. In writing about a better, more authentic way to make connections with others, I try to reassure readers that it’s really OK to hate this flavor of “networking” (and as a verb, it’s awful); and instead to enjoy the art of connecting with people you like, one-to-one, so that you have a genuine “network” (the noun is fine!). Readers tell me they’re relieved to know that there’s a way to enjoy connecting with new people on their own terms, in their own style and at their own pace. For me, as an introvert, the book codifies my own instinctive set of habits, and others telling me this approach works for them too is downright heartening.
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Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
I’m a Questioner. I believe there’s almost always more to the story, the custom, the rule than is first apparent. I like to look around the corner. I recognize that there’s always more to know, and more perspectives to understand. I tend to distrust people who are fixated on a single standard or a rule—“it’s always been done this way” or “that’s just the way it is” is never the right answer for me.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)
Most of my working life has been in organizations with other people, and that means structure: standard hours, meetings, the daily rituals of working around others. It’s fair to say I’ve enjoyed it, and even thrived in it. Now I work for myself, but it includes some time consulting in an office. I love being able to keep my own hours, but I can give in so easily to office rhythms—get there early, be available, be responsive. Sometimes I feel like an old workhorse who knows the set route. The good news is that I find myself longing to escape the old daily exoskeleton. I notice a (growing!) desire for, say, regular exercise, dog fun, time to pay attention to inner desires rather than external requirements. I’m working on creating some new daily routines that are for me, not for being “needed at the office.”
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)
If I have a motto, it’s probably this: “Context is everything.” To me it means we can’t take much of anything at face value, whether it’s a beautiful object or an ugly political event. Everything in the world has a human basis: historical, psychological, economic, social. This viewpoint about needing context to understand has been useful in relation to my long-time field of communications (what’s the purpose of your message?)—and I think it also applies to understanding any situation involving humans. It’s hard for me to appreciate or understand a thing without context, when knowing more adds depth and meaning.
In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?
People often fall into the trap of thinking they’re “bothering” people when they’re seeking advice or introductions — that somehow they’re lesser than the other person. In my book I make the point that all of us will need guidance or a lead from someone else at various points in life, and more often than not, useful information is going to come from someone you don’t already know. So we all get to take turns asking, and receiving. A related point I make is that most of us like to be asked for help or advice. Humans want to help one another, given a chance.
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