Making a Social Map

This is the third article in a series. If you’re not yet convinced that It’s not only who you know, it’s who they know, you may want to check out that article first. Also, I try to avoid using technical terms in these articles. At the end of this one I provide a list of commonly used words if you’re interested in “going down the rabbit hole”.

Maps are great at simplifying complicated information. They are tools that help guide us and provide context for our experiences. Sometimes they even inspire our curiosity. Usually maps describe a place, but they can also be used to display different types of information.

Instead of making maps of our neighbourhood with buildings and roads, we’ll make maps of our community with people and connections. That way we can better understand who we know and who they know. The map’s shape can help answer questions we have about our experience as social animals and surface hidden patterns that may not be obvious. Here are a few questions that these types of maps can help answer:

  • From whom am I most likely to get new information, opportunities, and ideas?
  • Which group(s) of people influence my habits and behaviours?
  • How resilient is my support network of advice and help?

This 3-step guide will help us make a map of our own. Making a map doesn’t need to take a lot of time and doesn’t require any fancy tools. We can make one with paper and a pen, or use whatever software tool we usually use to make presentations or diagrams. This map took me 30 minutes to make using Keynote. The names have been changed to protect their privacy.

These types of maps only have two parts:

  1. People: circles that represent each of the people in the map
  2. Connections: lines that show who in the map is connected to whom and gives the map it’s shape 

Maps are only useful if they can help us explore something we’re curious about or answer a question we’ve asked. A map of New York can’t help us if we’re lost in London, regardless of how detailed it is. One map might help us get from one museum to another, but it won’t tell us what exhibits we can see on each floor in one of those museums.

For our map, we’ll use this guiding question:
If I am the sum of the people I spend time with, who am I the sum of?

It’s important to remember that there’s no such thing as a perfect map, just like there’s no such thing as a perfect community. We are always balancing tradeoffs between size, interconnectedness, and diversity. We’ll discuss more about this when I explain how to interpret the map in the next article.

Step 1: choosing people to include in the map
When someone makes a map, they make a decision about what to include and what to leave out. If they are making a map of a country, they might choose to include cities based on a minimum size. If they are making a map explaining how to get to their favourite neighbourhood restaurant, they might include only a handful of landmarks along the way.

It’s not realistic to make a complete map of all the people we have ever known and all their connections. Focusing on only who we’ve spoken with in the last two weeks helps us simplify the map. It’s not a judgement about who is important and who is not, it’s just a snapshot of a moment in time. We can also change, shorten, or lengthen the time window to add or remove people from the map. If the last two weeks weren’t very typical (e.g. a holiday), we can choose another two week time window in the recent past. Our life stage and profession are among many attributes that can have a huge impact on the number of people we speak with in a given day. 

In the last 2 weeks:

  • Who did I speak with in person?
  • Who did I speak with on video chat?
  • Who did I speak with on the phone?
  • Who did I exchange text messages with?

As we go through each question and reflect on the two weeks, we’ll come up with a list of names. We’ll add each of their first names or initials into circles on the map, all connected to us at the centre.

This is not a memory test. We can look at our phone or calendar to help us remember. However, there are some people that might not be obvious, like our favourite barista, one of our friend’s children, or a person we engage with on social media but haven’t met in person. Think carefully about who might be missing.

It doesn’t matter how many people the map has, though I’d recommend a minimum of 5 and a maximum of 50 based on Robin Dunbar’s work on social groups.

Step 2: connecting people that know each other in the map
If we were taking a road trip, we’d be interested in a map that includes highways we plan to take. If we were exploring a city for the first time, a map of the public transit system might be helpful. If we were taking a walking tour, a map of the sidewalks and footpaths might be enough. In each of these situations, we are using different types of connections between locations on a map.

After we figure out which people to include in the map, we can consider how they are connected to each other. They might be family members, classmates, or colleagues. For our purposes, these distinctions aren’t very important. We’re just interested in whether the people in the map know each other. 

For every possible pair of people in the map, ask yourself, “Do these two people know each other?”

If we want to make the question a little more selective, we could ask ourselves, “Would these two people spend time together without me?” This helps if two sides of the family met at a wedding several years ago, but haven’t spoken to each other since.

For each pair of people that know each other, we should draw a line between the circles in the map. We’ve already made a social map!

Step 3: understanding what attributes they share
When I visited Penang, I was delighted by the local tourist map. Instead of showing where all the restaurants were, the map had pictures of each of the famous Penang dishes and where to eat them. They focused on the attribute of each place that was most important, the famous dish they serve.

Attributes are ways to categorise people based on how they are similar. We can use almost anything: gender, industry, or favourite dessert. Which attribute we choose to highlight depends on what we’re trying to learn. Are we interested in the diversity of the people we spend time with? Or, are we interested in their habits? We can write a question for the attribute(s) we’d like to include. We don’t have to write it as multiple-choice question, but it’s often helpful to think of it in that way. We should be able to answer the question for most of the people included in the map.

Here are some example attribute questions that we can use:

  1. Which option best describes this person’s gender? a) same as mine, b) different than mine, c) don’t know
  2. How old is this person? a) more than 10 years younger, b) within 10 years of my age, c) more than 10 years older, d) don’t know
  3. What continent does this person live on? a) Africa, b) Asia, c) Australia, d) Europe, e) North America, f) South America, g) don’t know

We can make the circles different colours based on their attribute. Choose an attribute you’d like to map. On the left, I’ve mapped attribute question 2 focused on age. The yellow circles represent people that are 10+ years younger than me. Orange represents people my age. Pink circles represent people that are at least 10 years older than me.

 

 

That’s all there is to it. If we’re curious about how representative the map is, we can choose another two-week window and make another map for comparison. We can also make a new map with different guiding questions, such as:

  • Who supports my freelance business through advice, collaboration, and referrals?
  • How diverse is the information I get from my network (e.g. news, opinions, ideas, books, events, products, services, even gossip)?

In the next article, we’ll learn how to read our map.

A note on language

In my experience, the language used to describe this type of visualisation varies by discipline. Data scientists, physicists, and sociologists don’t use the same terminology and the words are often opaque. My hope is to make this type of exercise accessible to a wider audience.

  • Map – most of the time this is called a graph, but if they are displaying the network around one individual they can sometimes be referred to as a sociogram or egonet
  • People/Circle – most commonly referred to as a node or vertex and can represent people, organisations, or even pieces of information
  • Connection/Line – can be called an edge or tie and represents a relationship between two nodes
  • Shape – often described as the structure of the graph with reference to it’s density and how the nodes are clustered

It’s not only who we know, it’s who they know — Part 2

Photo by Juan Cruz Mountford on Unsplash

This is part 2 in a series. If you’re not yet convinced that “it’s not only who we know, it’s who they know”, you may want to check out part 1 first. Also, I try to avoid using technical terms in these articles. At the end of this one I provide a list of commonly used words if you’re interested in “going down the rabbit hole”.

Once we internalise the fact that who we know matters, we can start to imagine that who they know also matters. We are shaped by all the connections that the people we know (and don’t know) have with each other, not just our individual connections.

These connections are what gives a community its shape. Without them, everyone’s would look the same, where we are at the centre and all of the people we interact with sit around us. However, we know that these people have independent relationships with each other. All those connections, not just our individual connections, influence outcomes for the people and communities we care about.

Who they know influences our health

Nicholas Christakis is a professor at Yale University and Director of the Human Nature Lab. In Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, he summarises how who-knows-who influences our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. In one study, they were able to show that if a person’s friend’s friend’s friend was obese, it increased the likelihood that person was also obese. That means that we are influenced by many people we have never met and may never meet.

Imagine you’re at the centre of this community above and know 8 people. Not only are you influenced by the 8 people you know and the 8 people they know, but you are also influenced by the 11 people that those people know (highlighted in yellow). The habits and behaviours of those 27 people will each have some influence over what you do.

Amar Dhand is a neurologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a social scientist at Harvard Medical School. In “Social Networks and Risk of Delayed Hospital Arrival After Acute Stroke“, he describes how the connections between people they know directly impact their health. He found that the shape of the group could significantly delay a patient’s arrival at the hospital after experiencing stroke symptoms. This is important because there are treatments that are only effective within certain time windows and 70% of stroke patients don’t arrive in time to take advantage of them.

He found that people in small, strong, tight-knit groups consistently arrived late to the hospital, therefore missing this window for valuable stroke treatments. On the other hand, people with weaker ties and less interconnected groups were more likely to arrive in time. Friends and family of patients in small, strong, tight-knit groups were more likely to discuss the situation at length, debate options, and often decided to adopt a ‘watch and wait’ approach. This unhelpful behaviour delayed a trip to the hospital and access to timely treatment.

Who they know influences our success

You’ve probably heard me talk about Janice McCabe’s work because the insights are so clear and powerful. She is an associate professor of sociology at Dartmouth College and author of Connecting in College: How Friendship Networks Matter for Academic and Social Success. When Dr. McCabe drew the friend groups of a student from their perspective, she identified three different shapes. These drawings show a group from the point of view of the individual at the centre. She studied students at a large, US university and found that one shape could significantly help or hurt students’ academic success. She also found that this shape was more common among specific groups of students.

These are the three shapes she identified. Tight-knitters look like a ball of yarn, where most of the people in the group know each other. Compartmentalizers look like a bow tie, where there are two or more groups of friends, but those groups don’t know each other. Samplers look like a daisy, where the person has several one-to-one friendships, but most of those people don’t know each other. Isn’t it interesting how the tight-knit ball of yarn and the bow tie-shaped compartments show up in both Dhand and McCabe’s work?

Tight-knit groups drove significantly better outcomes when friends supported each other academically. However, if friends discouraged or undermined the academic efforts of the student, it resulted in worse academic outcomes. In her study, only 77% of tight-knitters graduated, compared with 91% of compartmentalizers and 92% of samplers. Unfortunately, students from underrepresented ethnicities were significantly more likely to have tight-knitter friend groups. The qualitative interviews uncovered two reasons for this. First, there were far fewer people on campus with the same ethnic background, so they tended to band together. Second, they reported that their close-knit friend groups helped them deal with the inequality and structural racism they experienced.

In school, I didn’t have one tight-knit group of friends that I always hung out with. I had a handful of very close friends, each of whom was part of a different social group. It was great for trying on different identities. It was bad for securing Friday night plans. As an adult, I have cultivated intellectually-stimulating connections with people all over the world. My personal network is an information and idea gathering machine, where I connect infrequently with many people who don’t know each other. Each would introduce me to something new and provide a unique perspective. It’s invaluable for my career and personal growth, but less helpful for my habit of locking myself out.

These ideas also apply in professional contexts. The tagline of this Harvard Business Review article says it all: “Measure who they know, not just who they are”. Paul Leonardi, Noshir Contractor, and their collaborators have identified signature shapes that correlate with important business activities in an organisation such as ideation, influence, efficiency, and innovation.

Again, we see the daisy and ball of yarn shapes. It’s not surprising that a person “sampling” from the organisation would be more likely to generate new ideas. They are a hub between many different groups and can spot patterns that other people may not be able to see. It’s also reasonable to expect that a tight-knit group would be more efficient. They are continuously improving how they work together. The challenge is that it is hard to be both at the same time, which is an example of the classic trade-off between exploration and exploitation.

Who they know influences how information and behaviour spreads

First, let’s think about the difference between spreading information and behaviour. In the case of information, a person only needs to hear from someone once about a job opportunity in order to spread that information further. In the case of behaviour, people often need to see two or more others adopting a behaviour before they are willing to adopt it themselves.

Damon Centola is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of How Behavior Spreads: The Science of Complex Contagions. He has studied the spread of information and behaviour within networks and found that the shape impacted how successfully behaviours spread, if at all.

In a set of experiments, Centola took three different hypothetical shapes and timed how long it took for information or behaviour to spread to every member of that community. The first one had all wide bridges, meaning that people in the group always had mutual connections. The second one had a mix of wide and narrow bridges. The third one had almost all narrow bridges, meaning that the people in the group didn’t have mutual connections.

Information took fourteen days to spread in a wide-bridge group and only three days to spread in a narrow-bridge group. In contrast, behaviour took 26 days to spread in a wide-bridge group and 35 days to spread in a mixed-bridge group. Behaviour was unable to spread even after 100 days in a narrow-bridge group.

He concluded that new behaviours spread most effectively over wide bridges because individuals need social reinforcement to adopt them. While one weak relationship between two tight-knit groups is often sufficient to spread information or disease, behaviour struggles to travel across such a narrow bridge. The key insight here is that a community that is very effective at spreading disease may not be as successful at spreading the behaviours necessary to mitigate the impact.

Making our own social map

Now that we understand why who they know matters, we can actually do something about it. Ready to reflect on the community surrounding you? In the next article, I walk through a simple 3-step process for Making a Social Map. It doesn’t take a lot of time or require any fancy tools. While there’s no such thing as perfect, it will provide some insights about how the people we spend time with influence our lives.

A note on language

In my experience, the language used to describe this type of visualisation varies by discipline. Data scientists, physicists, and sociologists don’t use the same terminology and the words are often opaque. My hope is to make this type of research accessible to a wider audience.

  • Map – most of the time this is called a graph, but if they are displaying the network around one individual they can sometimes be referred to as a sociogram or egonet
  • People/Circle – most commonly referred to as a node or vertex and can represent people, organisations, or even pieces of information
  • Connection/Line – can be called an edge or tie and represents a relationship between two nodes
  • Shape – often described as the structure of the graph with reference to it’s density and how the nodes are clustered

It’s not only who we know, it’s who they know — Part 1

Photo by Park Troopers on Unsplash

We’ve all probably heard a coach, mentor, or teacher say “it’s not only what we know, it’s who we know” at some point in our lives. Some of us already believe it, though few of us really understand what it actually means. Many of us limit this way of thinking to our careers or a narrowly-defined version of success. We don’t appreciate how influential who we know is to all aspects of our lives. Nor do we appreciate that who they know can be just as influential. Who we know and who they know together influence what we know, what we do, and our success.

Who we are influences who we know

The first sentence of the often-cited paper “Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks” reads “similarity breeds connection.” Homophily is defined as “the tendency for people to seek out or be attracted to those who are similar to themselves”. They go on to say,

“Homophily limits people’s social worlds in a way that has powerful implications for the information they receive, the attitudes they form, and the interactions they experience. Homophily in race and ethnicity creates the strongest divides in our personal environments, with age, religion, education, occupation, and gender following in roughly that order.”

After a few years in London, I proudly announced that I wanted to make more “old” friends. I didn’t mean friends that I’d know for a long time, I meant friends that were at least 20 years older than me. Between my industry, living environment, and hobbies, I just wasn’t meeting enough people in that life stage. As a result, the diversity of perspectives I had to draw from was limited.

You are a network explores the idea that we have many attributes that we identify with above and beyond typical demographics. All of those attributes have relationships to each other (e.g. our family role is related to our gender). This can insulate us within a community high in homophily, but it can also create bridges to people that share identities that transcend typical boundaries (e.g. mothers and fathers).

“Seeing ourselves as a network is a fertile way to understand our complexity. Perhaps it could even help break the rigid and reductive stereotyping that dominates current cultural and political discourse, and cultivate more productive communication. We might not understand ourselves or others perfectly, but we often have overlapping identities and perspectives. Rather than seeing our multiple identities as separating us from one another, we should see them as bases for communication and understanding, even if partial.”

I remember the very first night I was in Hong Kong on business. My host took me to a cramped cafe just off Temple Street Night Market and ordered two bowls of sweet red bean soup. Never in my life had I seen beans sweetened with sugar and served as a dessert. It absolutely blew my mind and quickly became a favourite. Growing up in New York, I could have easily come across it given the large Cantonese population, let alone the countless other Asian cuisines where this is common. Whether foods are sweetened or not is rarely controversial (marshmallow-topped sweet potato casserole comes to mind), but who we know influences what we think is right or wrong, good or bad, and normal or not normal.

Paul Gompers and his colleagues’ study of the venture capital industry surfaces both the widespread homophily and the financial benefit of diversity. They looked at almost 3 decades of investment and performance data and found that if two people had the same ethnic background, it increased their chances of investing together by almost 23%. Similarly, if two people went to the same university, the likelihood of them investing together increased by more than 20%.

Unfortunately, co-investment between people that had these similarities resulted in worse investment outcomes. People with degrees from the same university who invested together had 22% lower chance of investment success. Investing alongside people with the same ethnic background reduced the probability of success by 25%. The researchers believe these results stem from ‘group think’, poor decision making by a group of very similar investors after making the investment.

We rarely reflect on just how impactful this is. We are much more likely to surround ourselves, intentionally or not, with people that are very similar to us. The people we know are likely to do the same. This impacts our beliefs and values, which influence the choices we make throughout life.

Who we know influences what we know

“Chance favors the connected mind” is a popular quote from the author Steven Johnson. In his book, Where Good Ideas Come From, he weaves together several concepts to highlight the role community plays in supporting innovation. He talks about the role of English coffeehouses in bringing the Age of Enlightenment and Parisian salons in the rise of Modernism.

Another famous example is the Solvay Conference for chemistry and physics, which started in 1911 and encourages discussion over presentation. Incredibly, 17 of the 29 attendees from 1927 have won Nobel prizes including Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, and Werner Heisenberg. Similarly, the Harlem Renaissance is considered a golden age for arts and culture in the US, attracting creators as diverse as Aaron Douglas, W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston. A more recent example is the PayPal Mafia, a group of almost 2 dozen people who all worked at PayPal. Since then, they have founded some of the world’s most successful companies such as Affirm, Kiva, LinkedIn, Palantir, SpaceX, Yelp, and YouTube.

One of the key concepts Johnson includes is called the “adjacent possible”, a theory by Stuart Kauffman from the University of Pennsylvania. The theory describes how what’s possible emerges from interactions between what currently exists. Since then, Vittorio Loreto and fellow researchers have created models to explain how this happens, sometimes creating something easy to imagine, other times creating something completely unexpected.

Of course, we and the people we care about are not always worried about coming up with truly new ideas. Interestingly, the adjacent possible also applies to ideas and information that aren’t new to the world, but are new to us individually. After resigning from a C-level role with a startup in 2014, many friends asked me what I wanted to do next. I told them I wanted to be a producer for startups, like producers develop boy bands. After a quick chuckle they’d say, “Well, since that job doesn’t exist, what are you actually going to do?” At that point, the first venture studio idealab was already 16 years old and the first talent investor Entrepreneur First was going on 3 years. These organisations, and many others like them, produce founding teams to start companies. Me and the people I knew just didn’t know about them yet.

Who we are connected to influences every aspect of our lives: what solutions to problems we can find, what career paths we are aware of, and even what treatment options are available to us. Basically, who we know impacts what we know to be possible.

Who we know influences what we do

Kristina Lerman and her colleagues studied many real-world communities and identified a phenomenon they describe as the “majority illusion“. Since some people have many more connections than others, they show up more frequently in groups. We might see a habit, opinion or even a product being used by most of our group, even if it is not common overall.

Of course, the subject is not always so benign. Lerman and her collaborators found this illusion in political communities as well as groups of teenagers using drugs and alcohol. Any time we perceive a habit or opinion to be common, keep in mind that our perception might be distorted based on who we know.

Conformity is a popular topic of psychological studies. Some of the most infamous were conducted in the 1950s by Solomon Asch from Swathmore College. In “A Minority of One Against A Unanimous Majority“, he shared the results of a series of studies highlighting the power of these social pressures. He would ask a group of people to answer a question that had an obvious correct answer. He found that almost a third of the time, people would say the wrong answer to the question if 3 or more people publicly and unanimously said the wrong answer before them.

In follow up studies, he found that 2 other people saying the wrong answer out loud first resulted in conformity 13% of the time and that 4 or more people doing the same thing didn’t increase conformity above 32%. Thankfully, having just one ally reduces our chances of conformity in this scenario. Also, being able to share our answer in private reduces our pressure to conform. Regardless, the answer to “if everyone you know jumped off a cliff, would you?” is yes, more often than we might think.

Who we knows influences our success

Mark Granovetter’s paper, “The Strength of Weak Ties”, is the classic example. The prevailing belief then, which still persists today, is that strong connections or ties between people are all that matter. A weak tie is how we might describe a connection between two people who are acquaintances. In his work, Mark used the example of finding a new job to demonstrate that strong ties often had access to basically the same information. As a result, they weren’t able to help each other identify new job opportunities.

In A Thank You Note to My Weak Ties, I mention just a handful of ways that weak ties have had an impact on my life. They have certainly unlocked career opportunities, but they have also exposed me to magical experiences and helped me forge lasting friendships. It’s also interesting to reflect on the chains of introductions (who introduced who). I have one chain that is 8 people long and counting. The number of opportunities that chain has produced alone is staggering.

In The Formula, Albert-Laszlo Barabasi lays out a set of laws about success, backed by work he and a team of researchers completed at the Network Science Institute of Northeastern University. One of the laws states, “Performance drives success, but when performance can’t be measured, networks drive success”. His team demonstrated this law was by studying the success of artists based on prices paid for their work at auction. Since the performance of artists and the quality of their art can’t be measured objectively like an athlete, it’s a fantastic example of where who we know drives outcomes.

First, they made a map of galleries and museums based on whether they ever displayed the same piece of art. Then they mapped where both successful and unsuccessful artists displayed their work over time to understand their career path. They found that artists that displayed their work at well-respected galleries and museums early in their career significantly increased the chances they could continue to do so. They were also more likely to fetch high prices at auction. If the artist started their career displaying art in places that were not as well-respected, they were more likely to drop out and stop making art at all.

For better or worse, it doesn’t end there. Not only does who we know matter, but who those people know influences us as well. In part 2, we’ll focus on how who each person knows changes the shape of the communities we are a part of. We’ll also learn how those different shapes drive outcomes for us and the people we care about.

6 Major Disruptions to Your Network and How to Reduce Their Impact

Change is the only constant
One of my favourite quotes about life comes from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who proclaimed that “change is the only constant”. While he lived almost 2,500 years ago, those words ring truer than ever in a modern world characterised by seemingly continuous change. This is something our networks are certainly not immune to.

Historically we lived in the same place and had a ready-made network of family and friends that we were born into and stayed in our whole lives. These days, we have more disruptions to our networks due to relocation, job changes and divorce that simply wouldn’t have been possible in previous eras.

The problem is that while we’re experiencing more major life disruptions than any previous generation, we’re not fully aware of the impact they have on our relationships. This means that when they inevitably happen, we’re not fully equipped to deal with them.

Here I explore the impact of six major life events on our relationships by drawing on principles from network science. I’ll also make suggestions as to how you can mitigate their negative side effects to keep your network resilient in the face of these inevitable changes.

1 | Moving Somewhere New 

We are currently witnessing the highest levels of migration in history. According to the World Migration Report, about 272 million people, or 3.5% of the world’s population is living outside their country of birth as of 2020, compared to 150 million or 2.7% in 2000. This number is projected to increase to a staggering 400 million by 2050.

Plus, with more people in the global north experiencing the freedom to work remotely it’s clear that relocation, either temporarily or permanently, will occure for more and more people. As someone who’s relocated internationally twice—from Boston to Hong Kong in 2008 and Hong Kong to London in 2015—I have experienced this first hand.

So what impact does this have on someone’s relationships? Inevitably, some friendships from your previous location fade as the lack of overlapping friends and distance begin to take their toll. As shown in the graphic, A’s core network is heavily disrupted by the relocation. They are more likely to maintain their work friendships because they have a local friend embedded in that network, but their ties with school friends are more likely to fade because of the lack of overlap with people their new place.

Maintaining friendships that don’t have ties to your new place is a challenge but with effort they can remain strong. I’m pleased to say I’ve maintained many of my friendships developed in the US and Hong Kong, despite living in London for 5 years now. (I documented my experience building a community when moving to London in this article)

2 | Changing Jobs 

The days of staying with a company for decades and retiring are long gone. The average number of jobs in a lifetime is 12, according to a 2019 Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) survey. Surprisingly, this data is based primarily on baby boomers. With younger generations more likely to change jobs and even careers than ever before, understanding the impact of these moves on our network is critical, both on an individual and organisational level.

I’ve changed careers 3 times in my life with two of those moves linked to my international relocations. While a job change isn’t as disruptive to your network as a relocation, it can lead to a weakening of ties with former colleagues as the daily time spent together in the office evaporates (see graphic). This effect is also magnified if your work friends don’t know your non-work friends and exist in separate clusters as shown in the diagram.

Michelle Rogan’s work out of Imperial College London Business School, which we discussed on the podcast here, sheds some light on the portability of networks from one organisation to another. The same analysis applies to whether you stay in touch with people from your old job once you leave. The question is whether the relationships or ‘ties’ you have built in your old job organisational or personal?

If they’re personal and you’ve strengthened the relationship by spending time together outside of work, then you’ll be far more likely to stay in touch. But if the only contexts in which you’ve spent time together are related to your job, it’s unlikely these ties will be resilient in the face of this change.

3 | Starting a Relationship

We’ve all had the experience of a friend who suddenly disappears from our network as a romantic relationship becomes more serious. All of a sudden, they’re no longer present at regular gatherings and it becomes impossible to get a slot in their calendar. Chances are you’ve probably been that person yourself in the past.

Research shows that this type of behaviour is natural for both men and women and is simply based on the re-adjustment process that comes from bringing someone new into our inner circle. Robin Dunbar of Oxford University has shown that people typically have five close relationships (what I’d call ‘reliants’) who they would turn to in the most challenging times.

Some of his research builds on this to show that a new partner will push out two of these close friends on average. This means that a person with a serious romantic relationship will only have on average four of these core relationships instead of the typical five, with one of those being the new person who’s come into their life.

In network terms this presents new benefits as you and your partner’s networks begin to blend. Since meeting my partner in London in 2017, this is exactly what’s happened with both of us building new friendships from the other’s existing network, which I visualised here. This can be a blessing or a curse depending on how compatible both of your networks are. In the graphic, I’ve illustrated a scenario where one partner is a tight knitter whose friends all know each other and the other is a sampler who has several separate relationships with people.

As the relationship becomes more serious and you function more as a unit, both of you begin to operate as compartmentalizers within your shared network. The challenge now becomes how to spend time among all these friends – although this is more of a challenge for B than A. It’s actually more likely that some of B’s ties will fade than A’s because A&B can hang out with A’s tight-knit group of friends together, rather than the multiple times it will take for B’s ties to all be maintained.

4 | Ending a Relationship
The pain of a serious relationship ending extends far beyond the emotional trauma and the two individuals involved. Assuming the two partners don’t maintain a strong friendship, divorce or breakup means that the shared network they have built together splits off. (I’ve assumed the couple doesn’t have children here to simplify the visual)

Research by Geoffrey Greif and Kathleen Holtz Deal out of the University of Maryland documents the shift in relationships that happens when couples divorce. Of the 58 divorced individuals and 123 couples interviewed, almost two-thirds said they had couple friends who divorced or broke up. Over half said that the friendship ended with one person and one in eight said it ended with both.

Naturally, the friends who have a stronger relationship with one partner will be more likely to ‘choose their side’. So A’s school friends stay close to A and distance from B. B’s work friends maintain their relationship with B, while their ties with A fade.

The end of a relationship is also likely to change how you relate to your network in terms of McCabe’s friendship network types, which I discuss here. After my divorce many years ago, my friend network shifted from ‘compartmentalised’ groups of people I usually saw with my husband to a ‘sampler’, with mostly one-to-one friendships. You shouldn’t be going into a serious relationship if you think it’s going to end, but it would be unhelpful to ignore the possibility.

5 | Having Kids

Although birth rates are declining in the global north, the general interest in having children is still high. While it’s something that most couples in serious relationships aspire to, it’s safe to say that the majority of people aren’t fully aware of the impact having children has on their networks beyond the usual platitudes of “say goodbye to your social life”.

According to research, new parents commonly experience a shrinking of their networks and a weakening of the ties with their friends. In a survey of 2,000 parents, the charity Action for Children found that as many as 68% felt “cut off” from friends, colleagues, and family after having children. This may be due to tighter budgets, less energy and an inability to leave the house.

Another study on the impact of parenthood on social networks by researchers from the Netherlands found evidence for the same weakening of network ties for new parents. Tracked over time, the decline seems to hit a trough when children reach the age of 3 at which point the transition back to some semblance of normality begins. Women begin to regain contact with friends once the child turns 5, whereas men were far more likely to remain distant from their former friendships, sometimes even until after the child turns 19.

The same effect that occurs with a new serious relationship is magnified when people have children. Now you don’t just need your partner and your friend’s partner to get along, you also need their children to be of similar ages and get along with yours too! As shown in the graphic below, parenthood will likely lead to the growth of a new network of friends with children of a similar age, if those relationships don’t already exist in your life. This creates yet another force pulling you away from your existing friends, as shown by the weakening of A’s ties with their school friends in the diagram.

For your friends that aren’t in a serious relationship or don’t have children of their own, your newfound parenthood will test your friendship. While you may spend less time together, maintaining those friendships is critical for you to maintain a sense of self outside of your identity as a spouse and parent. This helps to ensure that you have your own network to come back to when you finally come up for air after the first few years of parenthood.

6 | Loved One Passing Away
While life expectancy has been increasing consistently for some time, Benjamin Franklin’s assertion that “nothing is certain, except death and taxes” doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon.

While it may seem morbid, planning for what your life might look like when your partner passes away or helping them think through what life might look like without you is important when you consider the devastating impact death can have on your network. Research even suggests that the death of a spouse can lead to the other partner dying soon after, a process referred to commonly as dying of a broken heart.

As displayed in the graphic below, the death of a partner may lead to the weakening or total loss of ties with their friends. Just as with the end of a serious relationship there is a split in the network that leads to a shrinking that can become permanent without careful cultivation.

Recent research on social networks during crises like the death of a partner have found that friend groups react in three distinct ways:

  1. Quickly forming temporary bonds that dissolve
  2. Slowly forming longer-term, in-group bonds
  3. Dissolving and never healing

Critical to the outcome you’re likely to experience is the strength of relationships you have already cultivated with those closest to you, your ‘reliants’ as I like to call them. These reliants can also help distribute the workload of caring for someone who is in decline, even if these are just small things like keeping you company and lending an ear for a conversation.

How to Avoid Network Breakdown in the Face of Disruptions

While death and taxes are inevitable, the breakdown of your network in the face of life’s inevitable disruptions is not. The accelerated pace of change we’re experiencing in modern life means that you’re bound to experience some disruption. You can manage the downsides if you consistently apply the following three principles to cultivating your own network:

1 | Form Multiplex Ties
Compartmentalising your relationships makes them highly context-dependent and far less resilient in the face of change. A way to address this is to increase the number of dimensions in your relationship: so a friend also becomes a collaborator on your latest passion project or a colleague from work also becomes someone you go hiking with on the weekends. By creating these ‘multiplex ties’ in the parlance of network science (which I discussed with Janice McCabe here) you are making your relationships more durable. Even if one of the contexts in which you interact changes, you still have others to fall back on.

2 | Make Introductions Between People
The other major thing you can do is to introduce the people from the different parts of your life to each other. For example, make an effort to connect your friends from work to your friends from school or to invite your teammates from your local sports team to a get-together with your partner’s friends. This process of bringing others into the fold is an application of the principle of transitivity, which refers to the extent to which the nodes in your network are connected to each other. The more interconnected your network is, the more resilient it will be in the face of disruptions.

3 | Nurture Relationships Yourself
While you may build connections with people through your work, or form friendships with your partner’s friends, you may not necessarily maintain those relationships if the context changes. For example, if you only hang out with your partner’s friends when your partner is around, you probably won’t stay friends after a break-up. That’s why, if you want to retain these ties in the long run, you need to move them towards becoming ‘personal ties’ by nurturing them yourself.  The key insight here is that you may not own as much of your network as you think (which I discussed with Michelle Rogan here) and this means you’ll need to put more work in to make sure those relationships are resilient in the long run.

While it may feel like an effort at times, it’s important to apply these principles consistently over time. This is especially when it seems like everything is fine and stable. It’s precisely in those moments that the constant of change reemerges to surprise us again.

Blurred Lines: How Work From Home Is Changing Your Network and Why It Matters


Image credits: Global News

Blurred Lines
If there’s one thing that working from home has done for all of us it’s blur the lines between life and work.

Whether it’s toddlers crying in the other room, partners making coffee in the background, or cats walking between us and the camera, our home lives have become more visible than ever to our colleagues in our daily video calls.

For some, this has been a revelation. They’ve had more time on their hands without the daily commute or travelling abroad for work, increased their productivity dramatically, and are feeling more engaged at home as partners and parents. Many have taken back control of their time and are able to organise their days as they see fit, with some even starting a new hobby or creative project to take advantage of the extra time.

But for others, it’s been nothing short of a nightmare. They’ve been trapped in their houses juggling childcare and work or stuck in a tiny flat in the middle of a city, isolated from friends or family. Some have even had to deal with the reality of unemployment or the looming fear of losing their job. This has all inevitably put pressure on relationships and if China’s recent divorce spike is anything to go by, the West is in for a summer of breakups too.

Whichever side of the spectrum you’re closest to, one thing that’s certain is the blurring of boundaries between work and life is accelerating. Several major companies are enabling their employees to work from home permanently even when things stabilise around a new normal. Many others may follow suit and this raises an interesting question.

Is it better to keep these two parts of life separate or not?

Separating Work From the Rest of Life
The idea of compartmentalising work has always felt foreign to me, but it’s still surprisingly common. While there has been an increasing focus on mental health in the workplace and a growing understanding that all the parts of your life are linked, compartmentalisation is still the default mindset for most people.

In fact, it’s still embedded in the very concept of work-life balance. This mantra has featured prominently in conversations about managing the different responsibilities in our lives.

It’s easy to forget this wasn’t always the case. In pre-industrial agricultural societies, work and the rest of life were often one and the same. All family members pitched in to help in the fields and manage different responsibilities at home, as found by Keith Thomas in his piece Work and Leisure in Pre Industrial Society.

But for the last century, our culture has endorsed and fuelled compartmentalisation based on an industrial era mindset which sees bringing our full selves to work is harmful to productivity.

From the perspective of the organisation, the more individuals we have in the factory or office being themselves, the thinking goes, the less likely they are to follow orders, co-operate and act as those necessary cogs in the machine.

On the level of the individual, there are of course circumstances in which mixing work with the rest of life doesn’t feel safe. This could be due to fears over discrimination on grounds of race, religion or sexual orientation in places where the culture is not inclusive. I appreciate that this continues to be true for many people.

Apart from those instances, one key reason that people compartmentalise is that they fear 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 may be valuable or necessary, many are arbitrary. You probably shouldn’t bring your friend who has an embarrassing habit of getting drunk to an office party, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bring anyone.

Moreover, the information age has made it possible for work to happen outside the office and sometimes from anywhere in the world. This trend, accelerated by the pandemic, could push the pendulum back to a more blended work and home life not seen since the pre-industrial era.

Breaking the Illusion of Separation
Work and the rest of life are both parts of the same lived experience, so issues from one will invariably affect the other.

What’s more, keeping work separate robs us of the ability to show up as our full selves in the part of our lives we often dedicate the most of our time to. What’s more, it also has a negative impact on different parts of our lives outside of work.

The mindset of keeping work separate has a negative impact on our mental health and wellbeing. Research from Harvard Business School Professor Teresa Amabile suggests that people who have a best friend at work are happier and more productive, which makes them twice as likely to be engaged at work.

Just 20% of people actually have strong friendships that they can rely on in the workplace.

Surprisingly, people who blur the boundaries between life and work also seem to suffer less of a cognitive cost when being forced to switch between work and home-related tasks. It was previously thought that keeping strict boundaries between life and work would reduce the cognitive costs of transitioning from one role to the other on a regular basis but researchers from Ball State University and Saint Louis University have found evidence that suggests the opposite is true.

Compartmentalising your network also makes it far less resilient and leads to more fragile, context-dependent relationships. Research from Olivet Nazarene University in Illinois found almost two-thirds of people at work are seen as “strangers” or “coworkers” while around 35% are classified as “friends”.

But only a small percentage of these work friendships continue outside of work, suggesting a large number of people are still refusing to allow their two worlds to mix. Imagine you have a couple of close friends at work but never integrate them into any of your friend groups outside the office. If you leave that company, those relationships are most likely to weaken, even if you both want to maintain it. You didn’t develop another context in which you spend time together nor build resilience by introducing them to other non-work friends.

Working from home has also reduced the opportunities for spontaneous conversation by the water cooler, grabbing lunch together or getting a drink after work.

The solution to this is making an effort to connect your friends from work to the other parts of your life or to build ‘multiplex ties’ in the parlance of network science. As the name suggests, multiplex ties are ones that have multiple dimensions. For example, a colleague that you also invite to dinner parties with fellow foodies. The same also applies in reverse, where a friend becomes a collaborator on your latest passion project.

Collective Integration
Working from home has already had a meaningful impact on our networks and this is likely to continue for some time. It has massively accelerated the blurring of lines between our work and the rest of our lives, highlighting our assumptions about the ability of those two parts of our life to interact with each other.

Greater integration between work and the rest of life increases the chances that those artificial lines we’ve drawn will begin to fade in our organisations as well. When people feel able to show up as their full selves at work, the decisions they make will be more humane and beneficial to the customers and communities they serve. Zooming out, it’s not hard to see the full range of benefits these developments could have for wider society. We can all examine the areas where we continue to draw lines in the sand arbitrarily and start to see our lives as the integrated whole that they’ve always been.

Photo by Ben Carless on Unsplash

10 Limiting Beliefs That Are Holding You Back from Connecting with Others

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.

Connecting during Covid: How to Maintain Relationships and Meet New People

Staying connected during COVID has been a challenge in more ways than one. The pandemic has separated many from their family and friends. Meeting new people has become much more challenging and staying in touch with friends, family and colleagues in a way that doesn’t involve spending your entire day in front of a screen isn’t easy either. We are still adapting to a new world of remote engagement and don’t have the best habits and tools to fill our cup just yet.

So if you’re frustrated by the lack of conversations with new people or bored of the standard pre-planned group Zoom calls with those you know, here are a few ideas for making new connections and cultivating relationships with other people in your life, based on what I’ve been doing, insights from friends and colleagues and the wider world:

1 | Create a virtual front door with Whereby
You may not be able to have your friends over spontaneously for a quick cup of coffee anymore (be honest, how often did you do that normally?) but you can bring the village vibe to your home using an app like Whereby. My partner and I have a spare laptop permanently set up with the app open where people can ‘knock’ on our virtual door for a spontaneous video chat. You have control of whether you answer or not, but the added serendipity it brings to my day has been a revelation.

Network Science Principles at Work
In social networks, your different links to other people are known as ‘ties’. Setting up a virtual front door will help reinforce existing strong ties, help some ties strengthen, whilst also creating an opportunity for new ties to form if people “stop by” at the same time, creating more interconnectedness and resiliency in your network.

2 | Involve People in your Projects
I don’t tend to compartmentalise the relationships in my life into categories like work and personal, so I’ve taken the opportunity to involve lots of people in personal projectswhether it’s asking for feedback, leveraging expertise in a particular area or a more involved collaboration. This has been a great way to connect to new people and reconnect to others in my network who are interested in what I’m doing. How can you involve those around you in causes you care about or what you’re working on?

Network Science Principles at Work
People who are outside of your core network are known as weak ties and they are often valuable sources of new information and different perspectives that can help make whatever you’re working on better. Involving people in your creative projects also creates multiplex ties, adding dimension to the relationship because you now have an additional project-related link with that person, making your relationship stronger.

3 | Look out for the Neighbors
If you live in a big city then chances are you don’t know your neighbors that well. In fact, according to a poll from The Independent, over 50% of people barely said a word to their neighbours and almost 7 out of 10 describe them as “strangers”. While you may not be hanging out in person, the lockdown is a brilliant excuse to connect with your neighbours in spite of social distancing. Like many people, I’ve been doubling down on my baking. Sharing what I’m making with my neighbors and it’s been a lovely way to connect and brighten each other’s day. If you’re not a baker, what are some of the little things you could do for the people who live around you?

Network Science Principles at Work
Connecting to your neighbours through small acts of kindness increases the social capital in your community. Social capital is the fabric of shared norms and values which facilitates trust and promotes cooperation in groups, which is more valuable than ever in times of crisis. These types of behaviors will satisfy the very human need to feel part of something greater than yourself.

Other Examples from My Network and Beyond

  1. Run Open Office Hours
    Noah Askin, a guest on my upcoming podcast, announced office hours on LinkedIn with a link to his calendar that allowed anyone with the link to book in 15-minute meetings over a couple of hours every Thursday afternoon. To his surprise, all 24 slots were taken in just 3 hours and the meetings were all worth the investment of time.
  2. Build a Community around Your Passion
    My friend Kunal Gupta has been running virtual group meditation sessions since the first week of lockdown. This has turned into a vibrant community of people and Kunal is slowly introducing the different members of the growing group to each other.
  3. Creative a Collaborative Video
    There are plenty of examples of people getting creative during COVID but this viral stunt video caught my eye. Organised by stunt woman and actress Zoe Bell it features Margot Robbie, Scarlett Johansson, and other A-list actresses fighting each other virtually.
  4. Help People Use New Tools
    My Mom has been running workshops for members of At Home Alexandria to help them set up and use Zoom. She has also organized virtual discussion groups and exercise classes for the community. Older people are incredibly vulnerable at the moment and helping them stay connected by getting tech-savvy can make a huge impact on their lives.
  5. Start a Virtual Book Club
    My friend Dan Lee has started a subscription-based book club where he sends a book of his choice in the post along with a typed note to club members explaining the book’s significance. In a world that’s becoming more and more virtual, getting something in the mail is a real pleasure especially when it’s a great new read.
  6. Do a Game Night on Houseparty
    A handful of friends have organised virtual game nights on Houseparty which have been a nice way to get together. Whether it’s a game of trivia, playing charades or my personal favorite, Pictionary, it’s a great alternative to a standard group Zoom call that brings a little more joy and laughter to the table.
  7. Join Virtual Conferences that prioritise interaction
    How the Light Gets In is an example of a virtual conference featuring debates and talks on a wide range of topics. They put extra effort into making it interactive this year by creating various social experiences. Signing up for virtual conferences can be a great way to meet likeminded people if they have breakout sessions or community elements to keep the event social.
  8. Organise a Movie Night on Netflix Party
    Watching a movie or series is a great way to decompress after a busy day of work but you can also use this as an opportunity to connect to friends and family.  Netflix have just released a new Chrome extension called Netflix Party that allows you to watch together, complete with a chat function to share commentary along the way.
  9. Use Lunch Club to Grow Your Network
    If you’re looking to grow your professional network, Lunch Club is a great way to do it. When signing up, you give some information about your professional and personal interests and the app will connect you to relevant people based on your objectives. This is a great way to meet others who are also up for meeting new people.
  10. Create a Daily Social Ritual
    Two of my friends turned their morning coffee ritual into a way to stay connected, even though they live thousands of miles apart. They each took a picture of a mug from their collection, wrote a little blurb about its history and significance, and shared it while tagging the other on social media. You’re probably spending more time online than usual right now but this struck me as a fun, creative way to connect. And fill your cup.

Why Investing in Social Capital Now Matters More Than Ever

When it comes to relating to each other, we live in a time of great paradox.

In some ways, the forces of globalisation and technological progress have made it easier than ever to connect to people from all over the world and find like-minded individuals who share our passions and interests.

But in other ways, the changing structure of our society and the increasingly fluid ways in which we live and communicate have made it harder than ever to build meaningful relationships and maintain existing ones.

Now, the coronavirus crisis of 2020 has shone a light on the state of our social fabric. Many have been separated from their family and friends and we are continuing to adapt to a new world of social distancing which has isolated us within our own households.

But the pandemic has also presented us with an opportunity to reflect on how we relate to others in our lives, cultivate our relationships and invest in the capital that matters mostsocial capital.

Bowling Alone: The Importance of Social Capital
One of the first books got me interested in the power of networks and the impact they have on our lives was Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone.

In the book, Putnam drew on evidence including almost half a million interviews conducted over a 25 year period in America to show the extent of social degradation present in modern communities.

He found that the forces of urbanisation and industrialisation were fraying the ties between friends and relatives so much that in 2001 when the book was published Americans were 35% less likely to visit their neighbours or have dinner with their families than in the thirty years before that.

One of the most concrete examples of this was the transformation in the way Americans were playing 10-pin bowling, moving away from competing against each other in local leagues to literally ‘bowling alone’. This, Putnam argued, was evidence of a weakening of community networks and a loss of social capital.

The same root causes and symptoms can also be found in other modern, urbanised societies outside the US, where social capital has gradually been eroded over time. One can only imagine what the figures around visiting neighbours and families would now be after two decades that have seen an acceleration in the forces Putnam described, along with the advent of new technologies like social media.

Social Capital and Dealing with Disasters
The ideas behind the concept of social capital have been around for thousands of years, dating back to ancient civilisations but the term itself has only gained popular attention in recent years, thanks in part to Putnam’s work and the rise of network science.

The OECD defines social capital as “networks together with shared norms, values and understandings that facilitate co-operation within or among groups”. But why does this concept matter so much and why is it gaining traction now?

Other than being a critical component of living a happy and healthy life as found by the Harvard Longitudinal Study, there’s an emerging body of research that emphasises the importance of social capital for disaster management in the face of extreme weather events, national security emergencies and pandemics like the one we’re facing.

In these situations, social capital can be the difference between life and death. In his book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, author Eric Klinenberg examined the social implications of the 1995 heat wave in Chicago, finding that different ethnic groups had higher mortality rates, based largely on the amount of social capital built up in their communities.

What he found was fascinating:
– Men were more than twice as likely to die as women
– The black/white mortality ratio was 1.5 to 1
– Latinos who made up 25% of the population accounted for 2% of deaths

Klinenberg argued that all of these statistics could effectively be explained by differences in social capital. The gender difference, which authorities expected to be the reverse, could be explained by the social relationships that elderly women retain but elderly men often lose.

When it came to racial differences, Latino family values were cited as a clear differentiator but Klinenburg also went a level deeper, highlighting the structure of neighbourhoods in which the different groups lived as directly influencing the amount of social capital in them. This highlights the need to address these complex issues with the types of analyses needed to truly solve them. Everything else is surface level.

Social Capital in the Time of COVID-19
It’s not difficult to draw parallels between the Coronavirus crisis of 2020 and the Chicago heat wave of 1995. The US and UK have already seen a disproportionate number of people from ethnic minorities dying from COVID-19 and it’s hard to avoid the explanation that social capital has something to do with all this.

We’re living in urban environments where some are so affected by the culture of fear that they feel unable to trust their neighbours or even leave their houses at certain times. We have a rapidly increasing population of single-person households and of seniors living in isolation, with some neighbourhoods completely abandoned by businesses and service providers. Perhaps none of these factors will be directly attributed to the rising toll of COVID-19 fatalities but they have certainly played their part.

As we emerge from lockdown, we’re going to need every last pound of social capital we can muster. In a piece for The New Yorker, Atul Gawande outlined what he felt were the key ingredients to successfully emerge from lockdown, citing culture as the critical final component needed to combat the virus.

Culture is the sum of a community’s behaviours, which spread through our network of relationships. In How Behavior Spreads, Damon Centola shows how complex behavior changes (e.g. wearing masks, maintaining social distance) require multiple instances of social reinforcement from our network in order for them to stick and spread. Our willingness to adhere to these behaviors depends on how much we value the golden rule and on the amount of social capital in our communities.

Social capital is what enables resilience and there’s never been a more important time to invest in it. It’s what will enable us to successfully emerge from lockdown into a new world. It’s what will help us to mend the cracks that the crisis has once again uncovered in our communities. And it’s what will allow us to dream of a future where we can live in a more cooperative and connected way.

Dispelling the Networking Myth: Why Cultivating Relationships Matters

Keeping Friends in a Spreadsheet
About 2 years ago I was at a baby shower and bumped into a man I’d never met before.

We got chatting and within a few minutes, he said ‘You seem like the kind of person who keeps their friends in a spreadsheet.’

I am that kind of person.

Being proactive about nurturing relationships with the people in my life has been hugely rewarding. I’ve linked up co-founders who went on to build a business together, connected others who became close friends and even introduced people who ended up marrying each other.

It’s brought me a great deal of joy and provided me with crucial support when I’ve needed it, whether that’s help with making a tough decision or just needing someone to lean on.
All of this because I’m the kind of person who keeps people in a spreadsheet.

The False Dichotomy: Organic vs. Calculated
There’s an inherent belief in our society that relationships, whether they’re business, friendly or romantic in nature, should just ‘happen’ naturally. At the beginning of our lives, this simple model of the world makes sense. We naturally meet people through our families, school and other activities we’re involved in and form relationships pretty easily.

But as we get older, finding friends, partners and job opportunities takes much more effort than it did during our years at school and university. Unfortunately, we don’t update our belief systems to meet this new reality. The consequence is that any attempt to be deliberate in this sphere of our lives is often viewed in a negative light.
Doing so is seen as insincere because the idea of being intentional suggests an ulterior motive for meeting new people and managing your existing relationships. If you’re deliberate, the thinking goes, you must be the type of person who treats people as a means to an end.

This also explains the special place that the verb ‘to network’ has come to inhabit in our collective vocabulary as a dirty word.

As a result, we’re left with a two-dimensional spectrum: you either meet people naturally and lie on the organic side, which is good; or you’re deliberate about meeting them and lie on the calculated side, which is bad.

This is a false dichotomy.

Adding the Dimension of Intention
Let’s stop using network as a verb. It’s not serving any of us. Just notice how any negative connotations you have around the word disappear when you refer to the same word as a noun. This is because building a relationship doesn’t exist on a linear scale from effortless, organic connection to selfish, calculating value extraction. We need to add another dimension–the dimension of intention.

The horizontal axis represents the amount of effort put into meeting people, building new relationships, and managing existing ones. It stretches from no effort on the extreme left to more and more as you move further to the right. The vertical axis covers this new dimension of intention, moving from pure self-interest at the bottom, up to pure altruism at the top. Adding this additional dimension allows us to map new possibilities: more opportunistic behaviour which doesn’t involve much effort but is selfishly motivated and cultivating behaviour which is deliberate but whose intention is to build a relationship that is mutually beneficial.

I believe that we would all benefit from spending more time in the upper right quadrant right now. Social macro trends and societal effects of the global pandemic are combining to create the threat of a ‘social recession’ that widens existing divides and increases isolation.

Cultivation requires effort…but it’s worth it
Cultivating your relationships requires effort in a practical sense. You will often be the one who takes the initiative, which involves plenty of outreach and scheduling. Sometimes people will cancel and the onus will be on you to rearrange, which can be a pain.

There is also the emotional effort involved. Putting effort towards connecting with others and maintaining those relationships is hard because it requires us to be vulnerable and pokes at some of our core fears around belonging and rejection. These limiting beliefs can often be even more of a mental block than practical logistics.

Finally, there is also an intellectual piece to the puzzle. It’s easy to believe that an intuitive understanding of networks is more than sufficient, but it isn’t for most of us. Concepts like the strength of weak ties are incredibly important in helping you build a mutually beneficial network but they are also counter-intuitive and fly in the face of conventional belief. So in one sense inhabiting that upper right quadrant of the matrix involves practical, emotional and intellectual work but I really don’t see it that way. Effort yes, but not work–because when I think of all the amazing things that cultivating my network and relationships has brought me, it’s impossible to see it that way.

Zooming out, I wonder what a community would look like where we all cultivated our relationships. A community with less depression and isolation. A community with more social mobility and less inequality. That’s the community that I’m interested in exploring and creating here at The Reliants Project and I hope you’ll join me in cultivating it together.

What Does it Mean to Make Friends in 2020?

This spring, I took advantage of everyone being stuck at home to conduct a survey about making new friends. There were just over 170 respondents draw from my extended network, so unlikely to be representative of a particular culture or geography. The sample skewed male (61%) but distribution across age ranges were fairly balanced. The vast majority of respondents were between 25 and 84. Here are some of the insights.

Our evolving context. Partnering up, splitting up, having children, relocating, and illness all have significant impacts on our friendships. Unsurprisingly, it was far more common for people 45-64 to be in a committed relationship (51%) and have children under 18 (25%). This age group was the least likely to travel more than 12 weeks a year (6%). 65 to 84-year-olds were the most likely to be single (24%) and be heavily impacted by an illness or condition (19%). 25 to 44-year-olds were the most likely to have split up with someone (10%) or to have moved away from friends and family (9%), but overall their experiences were more heterogeneous.

More than half of respondents reported having two of these impacts & 14% reported having 3 or more.

How people think about friendship. Overall, respondents had plenty to say on the topic of making friends above and beyond the multiple-choice questions we asked. Common themes that emerged from people include:

  • The importance of prioritising existing relationships and overcoming barriers because friendship is worth the effort
  • The challenges people face in making friends as they age
  • The variety of situations that change the way you make friends, whether it’s having a partner, raising children or moving to a new city
  • The belief that making friends happens organically and a general distrust of digital solutions

Benchmarking friendship. In order to describe someone as a friend, many respondents must be willing to spend time with them one-on-one (60%). Others feel that inviting them to an activity or event is sufficient (22%), while some say that they must be willing to ask that person for advice or help (11%).

What’s most important about the people you make friends with? By far the most common answer was “We’re like-minded” (39%), followed by “We like talking about the same things” (26%). However, 18% of people felt compelled to fill in something else. Common themes focused around finding the person interesting and having shared values. If doing things together was most important to someone, they were much more like to meet people at organisation events.

Friend groups. While some people have mostly one-to-one friendships (21%) and others have several groups of friends that don’t know each other (16%), most are a combination of the two (62%). People who have several groups of friends that don’t know each other were more likely to be male.

People with one-to-one friendships were happy doing things alone & didn’t seek others who “liked doing the same things”.

What do people hate doing alone? Hate is a strong word, but lots of people genuinely hate doing certain activities alone. Only 10% of people said that there are no activities they hate doing alone. The most common responses consistently among both men and women were festivals (18%), events (14%), and holiday travel (13%). However, preferences did vary by age. 65 to 84-year-olds feel twice as comfortable doing things alone as 45 to 64-year-old counterparts.

The only activity that people increasingly dislike doing alone as they age is eating.

Making friends on and offline.Overall, the most common ways of meeting new friends are through work (36%), private events (23%), and direct introductions (12%). While 23% of respondents make friends online, 19% had never thought about it. A handful of men did meet their most recent friend online or through an app. People more likely to make friends online were individuals that hate going to events alone, consider inviting someone to an event as their benchmark for friendship, or if they have several groups of friends that don’t know each other. Dating and social media apps were the most common ways to make friends online.

People in relationships were the least likely to make friends online.

Digital distrust. The most common concerns about making friends online were “don’t think it would work for me”, feeling shy or uncomfortable, and privacy. People were most likely to say it wouldn’t work for them if they found ‘likemindedness’ important. Females and older respondents were most likely to be concerned about privacy.

Methodology. If you’re interested in the background research, list of questions, or analysis, don’t hesitate to reach out.