You may recall from my last blog post that luck gravitates to people who go on many adventures. The lucky people in life, society, and business are not the cleverest, nor the best connected, nor the most hard-working and persistent. The most successful are the luckiest. Yet, the luckiest are the experimenters – the folks who pull the handle of chance most creatively and most often.
That post was mainly about having lucky adventures in business. Here I turn to adventures in life. The same general principle applies; but the ways to have lucky adventures in life are different. Here are seven means to make your life more adventurous and luckier:
Some people instinctively know how to collaborate; most of us need to perfect that skill. The key to collaboration is empathy. Psychologist Daniel Goleman says that over time, empathy has increasingly become a human characteristic, making it easier for us to work together in pairs or groups by thinking and feeling in similar ways.
He says that humans have learned to become subconsciously attuned to each other in a way that harmonizes and resonates, resulting in our instincts for compassion, empathy, and altruism. We have gradually developed neural responses that automatically mirror the feelings, experiences, and actions of the people around us.
Our empathy is most powerful in face-to-face groups, amongst people we know intimately. According to Goleman, groups generate “a subtle, inexorable magnetism, a gravity-like pull towards thinking and feeling alike about things in general among people who are in close relationships of any kind – family members, workmates, and friends.”
Empathy is a fantastically useful skill, but it is easiest to develop, most valuable, and most enjoyable if you collaborate with exactly the right people for you. In other words:
Somewhere, near to you or far from you socially and geographically, there is a group of people interacting together into which you will fit perfectly. You will know it when you meet this group. You will understand, respect, and identify with them; and they will feel the same way about you. It is worth searching until you find this group.
They may be a group of friends, or people who work together for some well-defined social or commercial end, or some overlapping combination of friends and colleagues. It may take you months, years, or even decades to find these people.
But they are there, waiting for you.
Once you have found them – if you ever do – your life will never be the same again.
How do you find them more quickly?
By going on more adventures, looking for this group until – ah, it’s them.
The key to human progress is that we specialize.
Within “hubs” – groups of people – individuals perform different tasks so that they concentrate on what they do better than anyone else; and in turn each group specializes in what it does best. All groups compete, of course, against other groups, for money, resources, and attention, yet if you think about it, specialization is really the pinnacle of cooperation. It rules out individual, local, or national self-sufficiency.
The more specialized the world becomes, the greater everyone’s dependence on everyone else. We can’t eat shoes, math lessons, carefully riveted airplane wings, or legal opinions. So it follows that when we specialize, we must also trade goods and services. To do so, we must cooperate in a dense web of mutual reciprocation.
Our differences bind us together. Divisions of functions do not divide us, but rather unite us.
What is true for society is also true for each individual. Professionally, and for your own personal development, you need to specialize, to become truly expert in something. The something can, and probably should, be something which you define yourself, where your skills, values, and interests combine to create something personalized and unique.
To specialize in what really excites you, go first on adventures to the places and groups of people which are the heartlands of creativity which attract you. If it is fashion, go to Milan. If online businesses, Silicon Valley. If infrastructure, the big cities in China. The further away the heartland is from you – the more essential it is that you go there. The harder it is to get into, the more energy you must devote to worming your way in. You can’t transform yourself without working for a time in a transformational hub – a cutting-edge group of specialists – in the area where you most want to specialize.
“It is hardly possible to overrate the value,” wrote the economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill in the middle of the nineteenth century, “of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar.”
John Stuart Mill hit the bullseye.
More than a century later, the sociologist Mark Granovetter proved Mill right. In a seminal paper titled “The Strength of Weak Ties”, he proposed that weak ties – what I prefer to call weak links – by which he meant links with people who were acquaintances rather than friends – were more important than strong ties of family and close friends or colleagues. The more weak ties we have – especially with people who are unlike us, in terms of social background, where they live, what they do, and how they think – the more successful we are likely to be.
This is counter-intuitive, yet easily explained. Our close friends tend to be similar to us and mainly move in the same social circles. They have access to most of the information that we have as individuals, but very little more. To get more information, we need to go to other groups of people who are unlike us.
How do we get there? The only way is through weak links – people who have their feet firmly in a camp we don’t know, but somehow have a link with us too. They may be old college acquaintances or workmates, or just people we happen to meet by chance or through friends of friends. Weak links are bridges between the closely-knit clumps of social structure where we spend most of our time.
The essence of Granovetter’s insight is the value of socially diverse links, between people who don’t know each other well. Think about it for a few minutes, and it becomes unanswerable. If weak links did not exist, we’d still be living in small tribes like our ancestors, totally cut off from one another, with only a few close family members and neighbors to help us eke out a miserable existence. Weak links connect otherwise isolated groups or individuals, creating a tissue of interconnections which bind society together.
How can you maximize the chances of weak links taking your life to a new level? Meet as many of your friendly acquaintances as you possibly can – without any agenda or purpose – just to catch up. Start with the ones who walk in different worlds, and those you haven’t seen for ages.
Weak links are most useful when we least expect them to be. Such serendipity nearly always comes from personal meetings.
It flows from helping the person, without conscious intention, by something you say. Then, as if by magic, the favour is returned by something they say. How this happens is a mystery. The richness, intensity, and sheer unpredictability of a personal meeting – when for a few minutes everything else goes out of our heads and we focus warmly on another human being – cannot be replicated by a video conference, a Skype call, or still less an email. Face to face, weak links can be – fleetingly – incredibly strong, even sometimes changing the direction of our lives in the twinkling of an eye.
Every week, have a cup of coffee, or a drink, a meal or a walk with a weak link. Try to help the other person, and give them insight or connections they lack. Before long you will be helped in turn.
Finally, here are three other ways to meet and benefit from weak links, including new ones you come across by chance in a relaxed setting:
Make time for these – for example, after you are fired, or before you start a new job.
Go backpacking to Nepal. Teach a class in Cambodia, or Christchurch, New Zealand. Visit the poorest areas in the Heel (extreme South) of Italy – though take nothing valuable with you. Take a class in massage in rural Thailand. Go to one of the poorest American cities. Or if you are poor, find a way to penetrate an upper-class enclave that is geographically close but socially a million miles away.
Go alone, so you are forced to mix with the locals. Talk to people. Empathize. Tell them things they may find useful. Demonstrate your goodwill.
One of the best things I ever did in my life was to go and work in Cape Town for two years. I found South Africa so different from anywhere I had lived before. For sure, they spoke a kind of English – at least some did – and the suburbs look like Australia or New Zealand. But do not be fooled. It is a country at a different stage of historical development, where weird things happen all the time, and people look at life in ways that are different from North America or Europe. I love South Africa; it is beautiful and exotic, and most South Africans are warm and friendly. But what I love above all is how different the country is, and how much I have learned about myself and my assumptions from living somewhere they do not apply.
When you change jobs, you learn new things and get a whole new network of people, without needing to give up the valuable part of the network you already have. So, especially in the early stages of a career, it’s a good idea to move jobs every two or three years, before you really want to.
As you progress, however, the ideal is to increasingly define your own job – so it changes and deepens and becomes more individualized all the time. Whether this means freelancing; setting up a business as a sole trader; or founding a “serious” company that might change the world; or doing each in sequence – this is your choice. But realize it is an adventure. Expand friendly contacts, expand your horizons, expand your value to yourself and other people – tap into the infinite variety of adventures which our planet offers.
Truly, it can be a brave new world out there, if only we search, collaborate, experiment, specialize, and view life as the adventure that it will certainly become.