Why Successful People Have So Many Groups Of Friends

If you place yourself at the intersection of social groups, you'll have more ideas and more opportunities.

While ideas may appear to be only in your head, it turns out they're super social: Darwin talked about evolution for decades before publishing the Origin of Species. And while it might be you that gets the promotion, it's your connections up, down, and across a company that predict performance.

Why? Because ideas are like germs: they don't diffuse through populations of people at random; they make their way through networks—that is, the relationships you have with people and the connections they have with others. As University of Chicago professor Ron Burt has found, your network predicts your career success.

But it's not about knowing the most people possible. Instead of being about size, a successful network is about shape.

meeting the cluster

Image courtesy of Dave Gray

Rather than looking like a spiderweb, your network (probably) looks like a chemical compound. Why is this? Because we tend to form clusters of relationships: maybe you went to school together, maybe you worked at the same company, maybe you go to the same yoga studio or shooting range.

Clusters function in a fascinating way: as Empact cofounder Michael Simmons explains at Forbes, they get stronger as people form mutual friendships, establish norms, and gain reputations.

These relationships, then, act as an infrastructure through which ideas and opportunities may flow through. This has a few consequences.

Information goes faster and faster and gets repeated again and again—think about the inside jokes and lame stories that your friends keep repeating to one another. This leads to unwritten rules and normalized, reinforced behavior.

Information doesn't move between groups: Since you start speaking in shorthand—whether it's ROIs or ROFLs—you begin to be less intelligible to outside groups. As a result, knowledge stays within one group and doesn't move into others. Burt calls this info "sticky": it stays in one place.

What's a shrewd connector to do? Be the person that is a bridge between clusters.

Brokering: Learning to Speak Other Languages

We tend to stay within our clusters. As Simmons notes, if you're born into Christianity, you'll probably stay Christian; if you're born into a house of Democrats, you'll likely stay democrat; if you enter into one industry, you'll stay within it—unless you have an impulse to flux. Staying put feels good, as you acquire a reputation and social validation within your peer group—while stepping into other clusters makes you vulnerable to new ideas.

“What a broker does is make a sticky information market more fluid," Burt says. "Great ideas will never move if we wait for them to be spoken in the same language."

This creates a triplet of advantages. As Simmons says, brokers have:

  • Breadth, in that they pull info from a range of groups
  • Timing, in that they can introduce insight from one group into another—meaning that "old" information to one audience becomes "new" to another
  • Translation, in that they get good at translating the ROI into the ROFL

Why is all of this important? The more that you live between clusters, the more exposed you'll be to different ideas. As psychologist Scott Berkun has argued, all new ideas are combinations of old ideas. So if you gather seeds of the "old" ideas of diverse groups of people, you can make a super-productive soil for your own insights. Simmons himself is a case study, as Empact connects entrepreneurs with groups like the United Nations Foundation and the White House.

How to go for broke(rage)

Convene. Take coffee meetings. Make introductions.

Hat tip: Forbes

[Image: Flickr user Umberto Salvagnin]

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9 Comments

  • championgalore

    Thanks - great article.

    It's great to see the value of connectors and the 'bridgers' acknowledged here, as they are an integral piece to building culture, communities and enriching networks.

    But, these connections are relationships that take time and nurturing - all out of hours and in personal time usually, which can be unsustainable financially for the middle man or bridger for their undefinable role. How does one highlight their connections and justify their knowledge to potential employers?

  • tanjuB

    I'm thinking it would be cool to map out my own network, any good software out there for that?.....I thought of a making a mindmap, but it's not really well suited for showing multiple clusters/nodes

  • Konstantins Starovoitovs

    This is key phrase: Be the person that is a bridge between clusters.

  • Paul Newnham

    The comments you make on clusters makes so much sense to me. I travel a lot and this is my experience. I find the people who can connect clusters are critical for network strength and community building.

  • Alexandre Mihaly Ederer

    Always told my family, my ideas come.from a great twitter feed and a bunch of friends from varied backgrounds!