Our Take: Being Keanu Reeves

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Why do people network? At first blush, the question seems to answer itself: to find a new job, or be more effective in my present job. However, the recession is driving some job-seekers to think about network contacts more like the way they view other relationships in their lives.

Any blurring of lines between personal and career relationships is usually considered a no-no. But the push to rethink assumptions about what you give and expect from other people can be an indirect benefit from the soul-searching triggered by a drawn-out career transition.

A contact in transition told me and a mutual friend in an e-mail last month: "Both of you have been at the hub of the wheel which is my ever expanding universe of connections... You are two guys that I haven't had to wear my 'work face' with all of the time, and in return I feel that the candor has been mutual."

Financial analysis and career management each place a high premium on being unemotional, focused and strategic. One definition of "strategic" is "clever, calculated" - with synonyms that include "cunning," "dishonest," and "tricky," according to Roget's Thesaurus. In a job interview or negotiation, circumspect and calculated responses are frequently necessary. But if it reaches the point where that's how you approach every interaction with a professional associate, then you're in danger of losing your soul.

A Valuable Tonic

My contact's steadfast focus on the human element is a valuable tonic for me and anyone else - whether employed or not - who is prone to be strategic and analytical all the time. Heed his example, and you won't become the kind of soulless exploiter who cultivates networking contacts only because of what you think they can do for you.

The philosopher Martin Buber categorized human relationships as either "I-thou" or "I-it." An I-thou relationship represents a complete encounter between two beings, where neither desires to control or define the other. In contrast, "I-it" describes relationships where one person treats the other as an object whose purpose is to serve the individual's interest.

The dilemma is rivetingly fleshed out in the 1997 film, Devil's Advocate. The film's protagonist Kevin Lomax, an up-and-coming attorney played by Keanu Reeves, is repeatedly forced to choose between doing right by the people around him, or sacrificing those people to achieve a series of career goals. Kevin wants to do the right thing. But again and again he succumbs to the temptations - the thrill of winning in court, and escalating material rewards - proferred by his boss and mentor, the firm's managing partner.

'I Let Her Go'

After the grisly suicide of his wife Mary Ann, which Kevin witnessed but couldn't prevent at that moment, he and boss John Milton debate who was responsible. "You could have saved her anytime you wanted," Milton says. "All she wanted was love. Hey, you were too ... busy. Face it, you started lookin' to better-deal her the minute you got here (New York)."

Milton reminds Kevin that when Mary Ann's emotional tailspin became evident, he had urged Kevin to step aside from the important case he was then handling to attend to her - even at the cost of losing the case. "I told you to take care of your wife. I told you the world would understand. What did you do? 'Ya know what scares me John, I leave the case, she gets better, and then I hate her for it.' Remember?....It looks like you didn't care for Mary Ann, Kevin. You're involved with someone else: Yourself."

"You're right. I did it all. I let her go," Kevin replies.

Devil's Advocate, like Rosemary's Baby some three decades earlier, is all about career management. Its moral is, keep things in perspective. Victory, money and power are great, but so is the danger of being seduced by them. Staying grounded, knowing who you are and deriving satisfaction from helping others achieve their goals, are just as essential for coping with the temptations of success as for surviving a long stretch of unemployment or underemployment.

So, when weighing any career decision, always strive to keep the values that really matter front and center on your list of criteria. And remember that the voice in your head that's forever pulling you the opposite way - as Al Pacino's John Milton does throughout Devil's Advocate - is truly the voice of the devil.

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