Today I’d like to introduce you to a concept that can be as useful in your life as the 80/20 principle. The concept is the Strength of Weak Links and this is the basic idea. Living a full and satisfying life is basically about information. To take your life to a new level you need insight or information about an opportunity, whether that is a new job or a new friendship or a business opening.
So where are you going to get the fresh information from?
There are two main sources, and they are quite different. On the one hand, there are your friends and family. They are motivated to help you. But the trouble is, they move in the same circles that you do. They have access to pretty much the same information as you do, and not much else.
To get more information and different insight you need to more distant parts of your social world, and possibly outside it altogether. You need to talk to people who live on “different planets” – people with different occupations, different social backgrounds, different attitudes, different ways of thinking, and different geographical locations. They know things that you don’t. They know of job openings and quite possibly business opportunities that you may not even be able to imagine.
But you know some of these people, or can reach them. These people are called “weak links”. They are acquaintances rather than friends but there is some connection between you and them. They may be weird friends of friends, or former college contacts, or people with whom you used to work a million years ago. They are your sister’s window-cleaner or landscape gardener, the person you meet in the supermarket queue or sit next to on a plane, or the uncle of a cousin’s boyfriend.
The theory of weak links was invented by sociologist Mark Granovetter when he was a graduate student at Harvard in 1969. His central insight was paradoxical, that what he called “weak ties” are often much more valuable than strong ties. He said that the people with whom we spend little or no time can frequently be far more useful to us than the people we see each day, those with whom we have intimate and intense relationships. He also argued that weak ties between acquaintances or strangers are more important to society than strong ties of friendship.
Granovetter researched how managers, technicians and other professionals found jobs (this was of course way before the internet). It turned out that personal contacts were paramount. But only one in six found their jobs through what I call “strong links” – family and friends. The rest, who found their jobs through personal contact, did so by using acquaintances whom they met only occasionally. Granovetter was struck by the fact that more than a quarter of all jobs were secured through contacts who were hardly ever seen:
“In many cases, the contact was only marginally included in the current network of contacts, such as an old college friend or a former workmate or employer, with whom sporadic contact had been maintained. Usually such ties had not even been very strong when first forged... It is remarkable that people receive crucial information from individuals whose very existence they have forgotten.”
As Steve Jobs once said, “creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow’, and soon you’re cooking up all kinds of ideas.”
So it is a good idea to plan to have lunch or a drink with someone you haven’t seen for ages, someone who lives a long way away, does a different kind of job, and preferably is unlike you in as many ways as possible. You have no way of knowing whether it will be useful. Maybe it won’t be to you, but will be to her. Probably there is no immediate payoff to either of you. But if you have enough similar meetings, and you listen carefully, I’ll bet that within a year your life will veer off in an unexpected and potentially hugely rewarding direction.
But the way to multiply your chances is to become a “superconnector”. By far the greatest benefits of weak links accrue to the few people who have the most personal contacts who are unlike them. These people act as bridges between disparate worlds. A superconnector links people who otherwise wouldn’t find each other, but who might benefit from the contact. Becoming a superconnector is the best way to sit at the point where new information is likely to come to you first. By helping other people, you help yourself.
Here’s your first step to becoming a superconnector. This week, put two people you know fairly well in touch with each other – it’s quick and easy if you do it by email. They should be people who don’t know each other, but might benefit from doing so.
In the next two weeks I’ll give you two examples of surprising superconnectors, which I hope will inspire you to become one yourself.