Can you remember the (first) time you fell in love? That’s an example of reaching beyond what psychologists call our “ego boundaries.” We feel at one with our romantic partner and we care for them. We enlarge ourselves by reaching beyond ourselves. By loving a person or an object – a cause, a hobby, a school, a company or a work team, a voluntary organization, a church, a field of knowledge – we form a relationship with something outside ourselves. A sociopath is someone who cannot or will not extend ego boundaries, for whom there is nothing outside the self. A narcissist, while not being so extreme, finds it harder than most people to escape the confines of the self. When we enlarge our boundary, we incorporate something of the other person or object inside our self. We become larger, less self-obsessed, and more useful. We also become happier, and probably live longer.
This is all common ground. But can the 80/20 principle help us extend ourselves to better effect? I think it can, in two ways.
Quality versus Quantity
Enlarging ourselves is clearly a good thing. But we can have too much of a good thing. If we try to enlarge ourselves indiscriminately, we soon come up against the conflict between quality and quantity. We can extend our ego boundaries indefinitely, but the more we do so, the more we come to incorporate, the less effective and useful we become.
The first 80/20 idea is therefore to choose what we care for extremely carefully.
Brain power multiplies with use, and so does information. But emotions and our capacity to care and love are strictly rationed. Energy is finite. Just as a car that goes too far without filling up will run out of fuel and become useless, so it is with us. And filling up is more a problem for people than cars.
Using the 80/20 principle to choose the objects of our love may seem too rationalistic and reductionist. After all, we don’t choose to fall in love, right? Wrong, actually. The predisposition to love, and sexual infatuation, are powerful magnets. But the decision to enter a long relationship with someone is, or at least (for our own happiness) should be, a conscious decision. As M Scott Peck has written, “love is effortful”. Loving is a set of actions, undertaken to cement a relationship and raise its quality. If we fall in love with someone who is really unsuitable for us – something that a large proportion of people do, something I have done – then we will either experience a somewhat unhappy life, or have to endure the consequences of a breakup, which will have consequences for at least one other person that we care for.
I’ve written before about the social experiment where a group of unmarried mothers in California, who had had rough street lives, were befriended by caring middle-class volunteers. The young women, all 21 or less, had moved in criminal circles; their male partners had often been shot or imprisoned, drug and alcohol abuse was almost universal, and they and their children were routinely abandoned. The idea of the project was to bring the women into a more civilized set of relationships and teach them the rudiments of survival in a more supportive environment.
The project was a complete fiasco. The reason – the women were “all used up”. They could no longer form a proper relationship with their would-be helpers. Anthropologists use the “village theory” to explain why. Long ago when humanity lived in an African village, we had two special childhood friends, two deep adult friendships, we fell in love once, and had two “advisers” we relied on, such as a doctor, priest, or head village person. The number of really significant personal relationships we can maintain is numbered by the fingers on our hands. The Californian young women had used up all their slots.
So, not only should we fill our slots very carefully; we should also fill them slowly. This is the second 80/20 idea – be slow as well as ultra-selective. The danger with filling slots too quickly is that our strong relationships all end up with people like us, from a narrow social and intellectual background. One antidote to this is slowness, because as our lives progress, we should meet people from more diverse backgrounds – at university, for example, or in our jobs. Yet there is another effective antidote to “too much of the same”.
Strong and weak links
The theory of weak links that Greg Lockwood and I wrote about in our book Superconnect adds another twist to the story. The idea is that real help in our careers and lives can come not only from our good friends and our family, but also, and to a greater degree, from people we barely know or who are in the background of our lives, or, indeed, people we meet anew. Why? Because insight and openings come from knowledge, and knowledge within any group of friends and family tends to be held in common. We know what our circle knows, and not much more. To get information that can transform our lives, we need to reach outside the circle, and meet people who have different backgrounds and insights.
These do not need to be deep relationships. In fact, given the high maintenance cost of deep relationships, it is better that they are not strong links. Instead we need tons of acquaintances from different worlds – people with whom we have a link and some empathy, but not a strong relationship. The most insightful sociologist on the planet is Mark Granovetter, whose paper on “the strength of weak ties” in 1969 proved that people found the best jobs, at that time, through personal and often accidental contact with people who were just acquaintances. 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 … It is remarkable that people receive crucial information from people whose very existence they have forgotten.
So we need a few strong relationships, and a mass of weak relationships with contacts from different backgrounds, who move in worlds far removed from our own.
To be really useful we must focus, not only with regard to our expertise, knowledge, and experience, but also in our relationships and personality. But this should not stop us from having a range of weak relationships to gather new information and insight.
Combining Strong Relationships with Curious Outreach
In extending our ego boundaries, we must make what we incorporate into ourselves coherent, consistent, and congruent. Otherwise, we end up, at best, as dilettantes, and at worst, as split personalities or people who care about nothing very much. We are all unique, but it is striking how much we become like our friends and the people with whom we spend a lot of time.
The power of uniqueness comes from two things – the intensity and quality of what we choose to incorporate into ourselves; and the outreach we can make without emotional involvement to the weak links, and other sources of information, that are as various and unlike our core world as possible.
We need homogeneity and fewness in our really strong relationships; and variety and multiplicity in our mental information and casual contacts.
How does this fit your life? And can you pass this insight on to your children and those of your friends?