Networking is a time-honored tradition. You go to a conference or other event, mix it up, meet new people and expand your circle. Hopefully, one of these random connections will be fruitful and lead to a new opportunity that will make you a richer, more fulfilled person.
That does happen, but it’s exceedingly rare. Random connections are random for a reason. Most people we bump into have nothing to do with us. They have different jobs, different friends and different interests. People we meet on planes usually just eat their peanuts and then go their own way.
Yet network science shows that there is enormous potential much closer to home—the friends of our friends and their friends as well. There is, in fact a teeming mass—thousands of people—who are not random at all, but no more than a few social hops away and many are likely to be valuable connections. If you want to get more out of networking, start with them.
Fooled By Randomness
Randomness has always had a magical quality to it, which is how Las Vegas grew from a small town into the middle of the desert into a thriving, glittering metropolis. With roll of the dice or deal of a card, lady luck can smile on you and change your fate. So it’s not surprising that we often approach networking the same way.
There is also some scientific basis for believing that you could benefit from random connections. In 1959, the great mathematician Paul Erdős and his collaborator Alfréd Rényi showed that random links are incredibly efficient at connecting networks. What’s more, they also showed that random links perform even better as networks get bigger.
So random collisions can lead to some valuable opportunities. However, they usually do not because in real life social networks don’t form randomly. We are much more likely to meet people we go to school with, work with or live near than we are to run into a nuclear physicist from Beijing (unless, of course, you happen to be a nuclear physicist from Beijing yourself).
Luckily, it turns out that even the most mundane people around us can lead to some pretty exotic places as well.
The Friends Of Our Friends
In the early 1960’s, Anatol Rapoport was investigating the problem of how epidemics spread and, with William Horvath, studied social cliques in a junior high school. They asked students to rate their top eight friends in order of closeness and then mapped the networks that resulted from the survey.
What they found was surprising. When they mapped the students according to the top two friends on each list, they came up with a series of small islands—tight social cliques unconnected to the rest of the school. But when they mapped the seventh and eighth friends on the list, they saw an uninterrupted chain connecting nearly the entire school.
Another series of studies in large companies by Sandy Pentland at MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab found that typical networking events, such as beer bashes, created little impact on internal social networks. On the other hand, they also found that simple changes like sending groups together on breaks and increasing the length of lunch tables worked wonders.
In both cases, the same forces are at work. Our circle of close friends is small, but their friends can link us to a deep and rich network that we are often scarcely aware of. Also, because the friends of our friends tend to have more in common with us than complete strangers, cultivating these relationships is more likely to lead to a real opportunity.
The Strength Of Weak Ties
In the late 1960’s Mark Granovetter, a sociologist, decided to take Rapoport and Horvath’s work a step further by investigating how people found jobs. Incredibly, he found that the majority got their job not through close friends or through a random collision, but from second and third degree connections—the friends of their friends.
He called this phenomenon The Strength of Weak Ties. Those who are close to us tend to have the same information we do. However, people who are just one or two connections away have access to a motherlode of knowledge that we are scarcely aware of. They travel in different circles, although they remain tangentially connected to ours.
Another surprising finding in Granovetter’s study was that weakly connected people were more likely to put in a good word for the person who got the job (virtually all of the people who saw the contact “rarely” and almost 90% of those who saw them “occasionally”). Certainly, the casual acquaintances weren’t more motivated to do so, but were better positioned to.
It’s Not Who You Know, It’s Who They Know
All too often, we see networking as a search for greener pastures. You go to a conference or a meet-up, make sure to look people in the eye, give them a firm handshake and do your best to make a good impression. It seems that somewhere amongst the crowd, surely there lies one of those mythical influentials we often hear about.
Yet although meeting new people is always a good idea, our time would probably be better spent getting to know the friends of our friends. While random collisions with strangers can bear fruit, our friends are, in fact, more influential than we are (and also richer and happier too). They are a veritable gold mine that we too often overlook.
The friends of our friends are also more likely to help us find new opportunities. We come to them with the benefit of a mutual bond which serves as an implicit recommendation. So not only are second and third degree connections valuable, they are also more likely to take an interest in our success.
While it’s nice to think that we can meet a stranger on a plane that can change our lives, we’re much better off meeting people we already have a connection to.
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