Imagine people as a two by two matrix (which is pretty much how I see the world). On one axis is competence (genius, idiot) and the other is personality (awesome, asshole).
The genius/awesome quadrant is easy to make intros for: they bring value to almost every situation and they make you laugh while they do it. Since we all want to be this person, we all want to meet/work/spend time with this person, and the real problem is not overwhelming them with connections.
The idiot/asshole is also easy to deal with: you work with them only when you are forced to, spend no social currency helping them, and hope they don’t give you cooties. If you’re particularly awesome, you can try to help them anyway; if you choose to do so, please do it by keeping them away from me.
The real issue is the other two quadrants, the mixes. I know a lot of genius/assholes and they often end up in engineering or academia, where you don’t actually need many introductions, so they are slightly less of a problem for me. When they do need something, you generally rely more on evaluating what they need than them. For example, if they need an intro to a business person, you generally try to find the most tolerant business person you know and make sure you are around when they meet to smooth over the bumps.
Which leaves the awesome/idiot and this is the quadrant that has been stumping me lately. They are nice people and so I do genuinely want to help them, but what do we do with people who simply don’t have the skills to manage the things they want intro’s for?
For example, I consistently have a few people who ask me for introductions to job leads that they just aren’t qualified for, and there is nothing more frustrating and conflicting. On the one hand, you want them to get a good job where they learn something and can meaningfully contribute to society in someplace that makes them feel happy and healthy. On the other hand, if they can’t do the job, they can’t do the job, and there is nothing worse for your credibility than trying to push the agenda of someone who just isn’t good enough to be able to run with that ball.
This may just be an offshoot of the global conversation people have been having about a generation that they feel is lacking in practical skills. I’m with Jon Stewart in that I think the young people of today are actually fairly amazing in their ability to accomplish a variety of things, with some shiny standouts, and so I don’t have a particularly pessimistic view of the young. But I’m still stuck on trying to figure out what we do with the people who aren’t standouts.
For introductions, at least, there is a standard formula: explain why the introduction isn’t the right one, offer to make the introduction you think is the right one, consistent positive feedback about being awesome (ignoring idiot, since that is something that can generally be changed). And those are all important steps: too often, I think people just throw awesome/idiots to the wolves, which sets them up not only for an unpleasant, demoralizing interview, but also wastes the time of your contact, who now shares your conflict about what to do with them.
The bottom line is that we have to stop being afraid to tell people that they aren’t ready for an opportunity. Sink or swim is great when you’re on Survivor, but genuine advisors should be taking into account the global well-being of the purpose and their long-term development, which means helping them understand their limits and find a place to grow beyond them. Scaffolding FTW.