Networking That Feels Natural And Leads To Big Ideas

The best kind of connections come when you focus on what you’re best at and ask the right questions to find the missing link.

Networking That Feels Natural And Leads To Big Ideas
[Photo: Flickr user Ellen Munro]

Erica Dhawan was working as an analyst on the trading floor at Lehman Brothers in 2008 when the financial crisis hit and her world turned upside-down. She decided it was time to find a new career path. In her years working on Wall Street, she’d amassed an impressive social network, but didn’t have the faintest idea what to do with all those connections.


It wasn’t until she was back in school, working on degrees at MIT and Harvard, that she noticed she wasn’t the only one feeling lost in an increasingly hyperconnected world. “I started to realize it wasn’t just me,” she says. “We’re all trying to sift through the noise of social media and technology to get big things done.”

In 2011, just as she was finishing grad school, Dhawan met Saj-nicole Joni, a business strategist who also was fascinated with smarter networking. Together they started trying to answer the question: Why do some people get big things done and others don’t?

It’s the central question in their new book, Get Big Things Done: The Power of Connectional Intelligence. In it, Dhawan and Joni coined the term that appears in the book’s subtitle, “connectional intelligence,” for the type of networking that helps grow and develop far-reaching ideas.

The Importance Of Harnessing Connectional Intelligence

“Connectional intelligence is about harnessing the connections you already have to create meaning,” says Dhawan. “Think emotional intelligence meets connection.”

Dhawan sees this as a much-needed update to Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point, which pinpoints three key types of people who make things happen: connectors, mavens, and salespeople. According to Dhawan, that’s an outdated approach. “Everybody is a connector,” she says. “It’s not news that we are all connected. But in the ways we are connected, we can think and act in revolutionary ways.”

Whatever elegant term you want to coin for it, at the core of what Dhawan is talking about is using the people you know in smarter ways to get big things done. It’s about quality, not quantity. “It’s about asking a different set of questions,” she says. “What this does is reframe networking.”


Those three key questions, according to Dhawan, are:

  1. What do you care about most?
  2. What do you already know?
  3. How can one problem solve another?

One of Dhawan’s favorite examples of connectional intelligence is Luis von Ahn, who invented CAPTCHA, that prompt at the bottom of online forms that has you type a word into a text box to make sure you’re a human and not a bot. When Ahn learned that 200 million CAPTCHAs were typed every day, he started thinking about how all that typing around the world could be networked and put to use, and came up with reCAPTCHA.

Now owned by Goggle, it works the same way as CAPTCHA, but uses the unrecognized words in scanned book text instead of randomly generated letters. The result is that the hundreds of millions of people answering security questions are also playing a tiny role in helping to digitize all the unscannable words in the effort to digitize books.

Most recently, Ahn has also developed a similar technology with the app Duolingo, which helps people learn new languages while crowdsourcing their efforts in order to translate text online. “Duolingo was born because Luis was able to connect the dots in technology, culture, language, and information in a way that no one had before,” Dhawan and Joni write. According to them, that’s connectional intelligence at its finest.

Know What Type of Connector You Are

Not all of us are going to come up with an idea that uses the brainpower and eyeballs of millions of people all over the world toward a common goal. What about the ordinary human just trying to connect with people and ideas in smarter ways? In their book, Dhawan and Joni identify three categories that we all fall into when it comes to our role as connectors in the world:

  1. thinkers
  2. enablers
  3. connection executors

Thinkers are those people who are driven by curiosity. If you’re a thinker, you’re constantly coming up with new ideas, but are often stuck when it comes to acting on them. “One of the challenges for thinkers is they are full of ideas but they have trouble sharing them with other communities,” says Dhawan.


Enablers are the people who are good at sharing ideas and bringing people together. An enabler is that friend always emailing to introduce you to someone she thinks might be able to help you out.

Connection executors are the people who are really good at taking people’s ideas and doing something with them. One example of a connection executor they write about in their book is Michelle Phan, who started making makeup tutorials and posting them to YouTube when she was 18. As her following grew, Phan’s tutorials focused on the feedback and questions from her audience. She was using people’s ideas to make new content. Eventually, after her popularity ballooned, she was approached by L’Oréal to launch her own makeup line.

Focus On What You’re Best At And Find The Missing Link

If you’re a thinker and coming up with great ideas is your forte, make the effort to share those ideas with people. Look for executors, or people who can help inspire you to put those ideas into action, says Dhawan.

If you’re an enabler and your strong suit is bringing people together, think of how you can do that on a bigger scale–organizing meet-ups, conferences, or other events that connect people who care about the same issues. “Set up informal gatherings to bring thinkers and connection executors together,” says Dhawan.

And if you’re a connection executor and your greatest strength is acting on new ideas, find ways to expose yourself to as many new ideas as possible, says Dhawan. Start reading new publications or following new hashtags related to your industry, for example.

“You don’t have to reinvent the wheel or be the boss of a company to be successful,” says Dhawan. “Open yourself up to the new ideas and people. You need to open yourself up in order to get big things done.”


About the author

Jane Porter writes about creativity, business, technology, health, education and literature. She's a 2013 Emerging Writing Fellow with the Center For Fiction