There are very few things in life more important than our relationships and the networks of people we surround ourselves with, but we spend very little time consciously thinking about them. Many people go through life with a set of unconscious beliefs and biases about networks and relationships that don’t drive the outcomes they really want. You can think about them like arbitrary lines in the sand.
These unconscious beliefs drive behaviours that have a huge impact on our wellbeing, relationships and community. The decision whether to reach out to an old friend, go to a party where you don’t know anyone or to open up to an acquaintance when you’re afraid of being judged can be life-changing.
In this article, I examine ten unhelpful assumptions about relationships that I’ve come across in my own research and experience. Then I provide an alternative perspective for each which will help you live a more successful, connected and fulfilled life.
1 | Making Effort with your Network is Self-Serving
There’s an inherent belief in our society that relationships, whether they’re business, friendly or romantic in nature, should just ‘happen’ organically. Any attempt to be intentional is often viewed in a negative light, which explains why ‘networking’ is viewed by so many as a dirty word.
If you think of the word ‘network’ as a noun instead of a verb, notice how negative connotations you have around it disappear. As I’ve explored here, building a relationship doesn’t have to exist on a linear scale from effortless, organic connection to selfish, calculating value extraction. If we add the dimension of intention, this opens up the possibility of proactively cultivating relationships with the intention to make them mutually-beneficial, rather than purely self-serving.
2 | Cultivating a Network is for Extroverts Only
Many assume that there are certain types of extroverted, charismatic people that have an easy time meeting new people and others who are more shy and introverted that will never be good at it. While some people do have an affinity for relating to people and others find it more challenging, you don’t have to be the most outgoing person in the room to make meaningful connections.
If you’re more of an introvert and don’t like big groups of people, seek out situations that allow you to connect more easily one-on-one. A great way to do this is by asking for direct introductions from friends or colleagues, which will create a greater degree of comfort and trust in the interaction from the start. Another way is to use online communities and matching services like the ones I discuss here.
3 | If You’re Good at What You Do, You Don’t Need a Network
It’s not uncommon for people to think that if they’re good at what they do, their work will speak for itself. The problem with this ‘build it and they will come’ mindset is that it flies in the face of what we know about the way networks operate and how they influence success.
There are some situations where your performance isn’t as easily measured, like creative or other knowledge work. Networks drive success in these cases because the inability to judge your work objectively makes awareness and social proof far more important. I discussed this on the podcast with Alexander Gates here.
The truth is that even if you’re good at what you do and your outcomes can be measured, your network still matters because a single relationship can be the difference between getting access to a new opportunity or not. Finally, cultivating a diverse network also gives you access to new ideas, insights and alternative perspectives that have been shown to improve performance, which you simply wouldn’t be able to access without a network.
4 | Strong Ties are the Most Valuable
For a long time, we’ve believed that the most important relationships in our lives are strong ties with the people closest to us: our family, close friends and partners or spouses. This relates to a false assumption that shows up in many parts of our lives: quantity over quality. Of course, on one level, this makes perfect sense—why wouldn’t these relationships with people we spend lots of time with be more important than the weak ties we have with colleagues, acquaintances or friends of friends?
But weak ties can be incredibly valuable for a number of reasons as I’ve discussed here. First, they confront us with our assumptions and encourage us to reach beyond what we’re familiar with, leading to new insights and opportunities. This can be extremely valuable for our careers, our creative output and our understanding of the world around us.
Weak ties are also a valuable outlet for coping with loss, failure and stress as discussed by Mario Small in his book Someone to Talk To. Contrary to popular belief, people often avoid discussing sensitive topics with their strong ties like spouses or family members because those relationships are complex and fraught with expectations. Instead, they often confide in acquaintances or relative strangers.
5 | If You Haven’t Spoken in a While, You’re Out of Touch
Whether it’s an old friend, a former colleague or an estranged family member, chances are there are several people in your life with whom you’d love to reconnect but feel you can’t. When we’ve had frequent contact with someone in the past and suddenly stop doing so, we arbitrarily classify them as people we’re ‘out of touch’ with. Unfortunately, this belief often prevents us from reaching out, since we feel it’s no longer appropriate to contact someone who we haven’t connected with recently.
The truth is it’s impossible to regularly keep in contact with every person we’ve befriended in our lives. As we get older, we take on more responsibilities at work and at home, which makes it hard for us to actively maintain even a handful of close relationships on a continuous basis. We also relocate more often, which puts physical distance between us and the people we’ve grown close to. Classifying people as ‘out of touch’ massively shrinks the true size of your network and prevents connections that both you and the other person would value.
The major benefit of setting aside this belief is it reduces the friction to reaching out – I’ve taken the opportunity during the pandemic to reconnect with a number of people I hadn’t spoken with for a long time as I discussed here. Whenever I’m passing through a city where I know someone, I’ll also reach out regardless of whether we’ve been in contact recently and it’s almost always a wonderful experience. The lesson here is not to put people in the ‘out of touch’ box too soon because you’d be surprised how keen they actually are to hear from you.
6 | You Should Compartmentalise Life & Work
For a long time, our culture has encouraged us to compartmentalise life and work and the idea is surprisingly resilient. The desire to avoid ‘mixing’ the two together is based on the fear of one network spilling over into the other with negative consequences. What if your spouse or child says something that upsets your boss? What if your friend reveals what you were really doing last Friday afternoon to an enquiring colleague?
While some boundaries are necessary, these fears are mostly unfounded. In fact, compartmentalising life and work creates a lot of problems and that’s why I’ve never really subscribed to it. It makes you less likely to make genuine friendships at work, which makes you less happy and less productive. It increases the cognitive load of switching between work and home-related tasks. And it makes your network less resilient and leads to more fragile, context-dependent relationships. So the healthier way to view these two parts of your life is as part of one integrated whole, where your home and work are both parts of your life.
7 | Meeting Friends Online is Weird
The idea of online dating used to be taboo, but over the past decade the proportion of couples finding love through apps has tripled according to research by matchmaking site eHarmony. This has resulted in more diversity in our intimate relationships, while marriages made up of people who met online often have lower divorce rates than those made up of people who didn’t.
So if this taboo has been transcended, then why is the idea of meeting friends online still seen as strange? Well, as social animals born into an environment, an inability to make friends in our ‘natural habitat’ invites the question ‘Why can’t you just meet people naturally by yourself?’ So if you’ve made it to adulthood and don’t have an established circle of friends, the thinking goes, there must be something wrong with you. There may also be eyebrows raised if you’re in a relationship and looking to meet new friends online, because of the pressure we put on intimate relationships to meet all of our needs.
The problem is we don’t live in a world where we live our entire lives in one community any more, as I discussed in the opening episode of the podcast. It’s increasingly common for people to live in different cities and continents far away from where they grew up. Take me for example – I’ve made four big moves in my life, two of them international and have lived on 3 different continents. The truth is that making friends as an adult is challenging so joining online communities and apps can be a great way to make the habit of meeting new people easy and accessible, from the comfort of your own home.
8 | You Own Most of Your Network
If you work for an organisation, you build up a number of relationships on behalf of the business. This is especially true for external-facing roles like sales, business development and account management but it holds true to some degree for most job types. Since those relationships are often between two individuals, a common assumption is that if you were to leave, that person would ‘follow you’ to your next organisation, or that the tie would remain strong – but that’s not necessarily the case, as I explored in a podcast with Michelle Rogan here.
While you may build a connection with people through your organisation, you may not necessarily be able to provide them with the same value if you move to a different business. That’s why, if you want to retain your ‘organisational ties’ in the long run, you need to move them towards becoming ‘personal ties’ by bringing value to those relationships above and beyond what your organisation provides. This creation of multiplex ties, which I discussed with Janice McCabe here, will make your relationships more resilient because they exist in more than one context.
On a personal level, a parallel could be drawn with the breakup of an intimate relationship. The friends who have a stronger relationship with one partner will be more likely to ‘choose their side’. The key insight here is that you may not own as much of your network as you think, which means you’ll need to put more work in to make sure those relationships are resilient in the long run.
9 | If You Keep Track, You Lose the Magic
Most people believe that tracking and managing your relationships digitally destroys the magic and serendipity of human connections. These same people often also believe that it’s possible to keep track of everyone in their heads.
But the truth is it’s very hard to keep track of everyone in your head, especially on top of all our other responsibilities. Just consider how hard it is to see a good friend, who lives in the same city as you, more than ten times in a calendar year. It doesn’t sound like much at first, but it’s surprisingly tough and the difficulty of this increases considerably if you have a long term partner or children. We also fall prey to various cognitive biases, where we only think about the people we’ve spoken to recently or keep a consistent habit of meeting with someone long after the relationship has stopped serving us.
When it comes to magic the thinking goes that if you use a personal CRM or spreadsheet, you can’t possibly make meaningful connections that last. My experience runs counter to that. I’ve been keeping track of my relationships for some time and can safely say it hasn’t killed the magic – it’s enhanced it. Being proactive about nurturing relationships with the people in my life has helped me link up co-founders who went on to build a business together, connect others who became close friends and even introduce people who ended up marrying each other. I’ve invested heavily in social capital and the returns have been well worth it. All of this because I’m the kind of person who keeps people in a spreadsheet.
10 | Focus on Your Own Problems to be Happy
If you want to be happy, you should identify the problems in your life and solve them, right? We live in a self-help society where many of us are constantly seeking different frameworks and strategies to help us achieve our goals, be it in our health, our careers or our relationships. Inherent to this approach is the belief that by focusing on our own problems, we will solve them and become happier.
While these approaches can work, they are often counterproductive. The more we meditate on our own shortcomings, the more self-involved we become and the less we think about others. The great irony is that being other-oriented helps us in all the ways we seek to improve: research suggests that those who provide support to others live longer and embracing community was found to be a critical component of living a happy and healthy life by the renowned Harvard Longitudinal Study. Adam Grant’s book Give and Take also highlights how this other-oriented approach can help us achieve the success we so desperately crave in our careers. In sum, all of this suggests turning our gaze outwards a little more towards others may be one of the best things we can do for ourselves.