The practice of building meaningful connections isn’t just about work. It’s about opening your heart and mind to the people and the world around you.

“Ah, networking,” Nidhi said. “I don’t make enough time for it.” I could tell the whole concept took her a little bit out of her comfort zone.

We were at lunch—something we’d been planning to do. We finally had some time, so we’d arranged to meet at a McAlister’s near Nidhi’s office on a day when I happened to be on the north side of town.

Nidhi and I first met while working on a project together at a large corporation. We were both contractors. She’d been brought in to lead the IT integration, and I was helping with communications. From the moment I met Nidhi, I appreciated her warmth and efficiency. She had a way of cutting through clutter on a project while making people feel good about their work, our progress and change. At one meeting, she even brought in fresh-baked cookies.

From the moment I met Nidhi, I appreciated her warmth and efficiency. I wanted to keep in touch.

As a contractor, you’re always an outsider—that’s good because it keeps you outside of internal politics, and you can make strides toward a goal when other people can’t. It can also create challenges when others are not focused on the same goal. During the challenging times, I really came to respect Nidhi as an IT pro, project leader and person. When her company assigned her to a new client and project, everyone was sad to see her go.

Nidhi had a way of cutting through clutter on a project while making people feel good about their work.

I wanted to stay in touch. We had so much in common, I thought. We’re about the same age, with children about the same age. We’re about the same height, with an inclination toward wearing scarves. We’re also both no-nonsense people with a generally positive outlook. Which takes us back to our lunch.

Over McAllister’s mushroom soup, which I liked and Nidhi didn’t, we caught up on our lives, and I told Nidhi that my contract with our mutual client had just ended. That was one reason why I finally had time for lunch, I said. I was looking for new clients.

Nidhi and I discovered that my amazing right-brained daughter at IU is a lot like her amazing left-brained daughter at Purdue.

“I don’t have too many connections in the communication world,” Nidhi said. As she spoke, she briefly raised her manicured hands, then quickly focused on her soup.

Did Nidhi think I’d only asked her to lunch to talk about job prospects?

Was she judging me for being a shallow schmooze?

“Nidhi, I wanted to have lunch with you because I like you.”

It was true. Like my New Orleans-born dad, I don’t know a stranger. An ENFP in the Myers-Briggs world, I tend to like everyone—even when people don’t like me back. I also have a blind spot for guile. This quality has led to a few disasters both personally and professionally, but I’ve gotten better at listening and checking in to be sure relationships are on track. Years ago, I decided that I wanted to focus on building friendships and work relationships with people who I liked—and who genuinely liked me, too.

Years ago, I decided that I wanted to focus on building friendships and work relationships with people who I liked—and who genuinely liked me, too.

I thought Nidhi and I fell into that category. We’d met through work, but work wasn’t enough. At the time we worked together, Nidhi lost her father-in-law, and I genuinely cared about how she and her family were doing. Nidhi told me about her amazing left-brained daughter, an engineer at Purdue, and I told her about my amazing right-brained daughter, an English, Spanish and international studies major at IU. I shared my photos of family vacations and Nidhi shared hers.

Networking in Kansas helped me land my first job in New York City.
Networking in Lenexa, Kansas, helped me land my first job in New York City.

Just talking about our families was enough for me. Would you call that networking? Maybe. Building a relationship is about building trust, and when you trust someone, the door to building a friendship opens.

When you trust someone, you’re also more likely to recommend that person if a work opportunity comes along. I got my first real job that way, and I’ve always believed in the concept. A recent college grad, I had been temping at a place called Kraft Foodservices in Lenexa, Kansas, saving up for a move to New York City to pursue my dream of working in children’s book publishing. A kind manager at the office introduced me to a children’s book illustrator who recommended me to the New York publishing company that would end up hiring me. Kraft Foodservices had nothing to do with editing, writing, publishing or New York, but a friendly connection had built trust and opened the door to opportunity.

The nice man at my temp job had nothing to do with publishing or New York, but the connection opened the door to opportunity.

The connection is the thing. And even if it has nothing to do with work, it has value—at least to me. Working alone as a freelance writer can be isolating, especially in the Midwest. Friendships with people like Nidhi give me a different perspective.

The Hindu Temple of Central Indiana, just a 15-minute drive from my house on Indy’s East Side, welcomed me to another world.

What do I have to offer Nidhi? I’m not sure. After our lunch, I sent her an uplifting email post by my friend Shawndra. I recommended a couple of books. If she wants to, Nidhi can call me her “writer friend.” And she can also know that she is liked for both her talents and who she is as a person.

Toward the end of our lunch, I asked Nidhi about her Hindu temple. She had once invited me to visit one of her programs there, but at the time I’d been too busy to stop by. “Come on over,” she said. “We have an event this Sunday. There will be food.”

Inside the temple, hundreds of people in bright-colored saris and kurtas stood shoeless in the large entry hall. The sound of their voices rose along with the scent of cumin and cardamom. A girl offered me a bowl of ice cream as I shuffled around in my cowboy boots. After several minutes of not spotting my friend, I tapped a kind-looking woman on the shoulder and asked if she knew Nidhi.

Nidhi (in the aquamarine sari) and her friends on the day I visited.

When Nidhi saw my face, she looked surprised—but not too surprised. She showed me where to stash my boots and asked her husband to grab me a plate of food. I’d showed up to the temple’s volunteer appreciation luncheon, and the seasoned rice, vegetable curry, naan and chai were free of charge. Nidhi showed me around the temple, and her priest, a thin man in a saffron-yellow garment, offered me a blessing. I held my hands above a flame, then over my eyes, and he uttered some words as he spooned fragrant water into my hand. “You drink it,” Nidhi said with a nod, “then dry your hands on your hair.” The blessing closed with the priest dropping a handful of almonds, raisins and sugar crystals into my palm. He also gave me a walnut.

Inside the temple, the sound of voices rose along with the scent of cumin and cardamom. I felt my heart leap.

I felt my heart leap as I swallowed the fragrant water and strolled past Hindu deities as people quietly bowed to pray. My visit was quick—Nidhi had temple business to attend to—but I felt something opening—and brightening. The trip to the temple took just 15 minutes by car, but I’d traveled much farther that day.

Friendship is a seed that can grow into something more.

I suddenly want to learn more about Hinduism. I want to take my family on a tour of Nidhi’s temple. Maybe I’ll even visit India someday. And I hope to visit with my friend again soon—maybe early next year after her holiday trip to India and Thailand.

I saved the blessed walnut and now display it on my windowsill. It reminds me of the new colors Nidhi—and networking—helped me see.

Photos from me, iStock and the Hindu Temple of Central Indiana website. See more photos of the temple here.

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