"It is hardly possible to overrate the value," the economist John Stuart Mill wrote in 1848, "of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, with modes of thoughts and action unlike those with which they are familiar." I was reminded of Mill's view when reading a thought from internet marketing guru Perry Marshall - "Great things will come from the edge of your network, not the center of your network."
Perry gave this example about how he and I met, which resulted in changing how we both think, and also in a very successful "Star Principle" seminar we ran in Chicago a year ago.
Perry and I are from different worlds. He understands online marketing. I understand business strategy. He is American. I am British. He's a generation younger than me. His main job is as a consultant and coach. I haven't had a job for twenty years and my roles are investor and author. I don't go to conferences and try to avoid leaving Europe, except for vacations and my annual three-month stay in Cape Town. I largely live in my own cave. So how could Perry and I have met?
Well, about four years ago, a good business contact of mine, a Kiwi called Geoff Vautier, had the idea of running a conference about the 80/20 principle in the US. I wasn't as keen as Geoff on the idea but agreed to speak at the conference if he could organize it. I hope Geoff will forgive me if I say that neither of us had the remotest clue how to go about it. Geoff used every friend or friend of friend or remotely accessible contact to get in touch with people in the US marketing community. Geoff struck lucky with a heavy-hitter called Rich Schefren, who wasn't interested himself but put Geoff in touch with Perry. That's how eventually Perry and I had a Skype conversation.
At the time Geoff started this dance, it so happened that Greg Lockwood and I brought out a book called SuperConnect, the theme of which is the value of "weak links". The idea goes back to sociologist Mark Granovetter. In 1969 he published research which showed that, when it comes to getting valuable new information or insights, our "weak" acquaintances are typically much more useful than our close friends and colleagues. The reason is simple - our close friends have access to the same information and patterns of thought as we do, and not much more.
Long before the internet, Granovetter probed how people got jobs that gave them their first big break. He was astonished to find that more than a quarter of these jobs came from really weak contacts. "In many cases," he wrote, "the contact was only marginally included in the current network ... an old college friend or former workmate or employer, with whom sporadic contact had been maintained. Usually such ties had not even been very strong when first forged ... Chance meetings or mutual friends reactivated such ties. It is remarkable that people receive crucial information from individuals whose very existence they have forgotten."
Perry goes straight to the point - "great things will come from the edge of your network, not the center."
In the Geoff Vautier example, he was in my circle. Perry was beyond the edge of Geoff's circle. As far as I know, Perry and I had no mutual acquaintances, and such was my ignorance that I didn't even know he existed. Geoff, though, went to the edge of his circle, and that's how we got through to Perry. As the latter says, "Richard's world and mine had this tiny sliver of overlap at the outer edges."
The point is not that we should spend energy networking. That is wasteful. Instead, paradoxically, we should spend a little energy cultivating a large number of people who are in worlds as different as ours. Geoff did this for a focussed purpose, and got lucky. But the best way is to cultivate these very weak links routinely, to build a network of people who just might come up with a great idea or contact for us, which we can activate when the need arises. And the crucial point is that these people should be as unlike us as possible. Most of us prefer to hob-nob, if at all, with PLU, people like us. That is exactly the wrong thing to do if we want to put a spurt on in our careers and lives. What we need are PUU - people unlike us.
This is harder than you might think. Biologist E. O. Wilson supplies a plausible reason - "the human brain," he says, "evolved to commit itself emotionally only to a small piece of geography, a limited band of kinsmen ... We are innately inclined to ignore any distant possibility not yet requiring examination ... It is part of our Palaeolithic heritage. For hundreds of millennia, those who worked for short-term gain within a small circle lived longer and left more offspring."
So we are naturally disposed to do what decreases our life chances today. We ignore one of our greatest potential assets. Nearly all of us today have a huge dormant network of contacts, past and present, and if we want, we can enlarge the list almost every day. So we can deliberately cultivate many more weak links, windows into new worlds, with little effort - if we make ourselves, if we get in the habit of doing so.
Although in theory it's easy and involves little energy, it requires a shift of perspective. Before long it is fun. It makes us more open to daily experiences that usually pass us by, and it makes us more open-minded. But it requires giving up one deeply ingrained habit, and acquiring another habit pretty much from scratch.
1. Explore and spend a little time each week on contacts at the edge of your network. Find out what they know that you don't - and the other way round.
2. Search for acquaintances who move in worlds as different as possible from yours - different professions and jobs, different social and educational backgrounds, different nationalities, different cities and countries, different political views, different philosophies of life, different ages, different everything.
3. Catch up with at least one such friendly acquaintance every week - through a drink or meal together if possible; if not, through a phone call. Do it sporadically and without any particular purpose in mind.
4. Keep a list of their contact details, when you last met, where, and one surprising thing you learned from each meeting. Never lose a contact.
5. If you can think of a contact of yours who your contact might benefit from knowing, or the other way round, put them in touch. Do this "altruistically" - and I promise you will eventually benefit.
6. Save time and energy by cutting back on contacts with people like you - in the same industry, the same town, and so on. With this type of similar person, meet them only for pleasure, to confide and hear confidences, and to strengthen an already strong relationship - not to learn something new.