• Are Neighbours Our Most Valuable Connections?

    Neighbours. Everybody needs good neighbours. With a little understanding, you can find the perfect blend.” So says the anthem to one of Australia’s finest 90’s soap operas – one that brought forth into the world shining stars like Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan. Now in the 2020’s the latest science suggests they might just have been onto something.

    Album cover of kylie and jason. Especially for you.
    Everybody needs good neighbours

    In his excellent book – Social Physics – Alex Pentland outlines how our own networks of social connections impacts on access to vital information that can change our lives. Information regarding opportunities, what’s happening in the world at large, local activities that we can get involved in – it’s all just a conversation away. So keeping motivated to be actively social, to expose us to other people’s views and knowledge, is very important.

    Front cover of a book called Social Physics by Alex Pentland
    Great book – highly recommended

    Interestingly, it seems that the more distant the social connection, the more valuable their knowledge. There is much overlap between what you know and how you think, what other people you’re well acquainted with know and think. But with more distant social connections, your friends of friends, there is much less overlap, which means access to brand new information. That life-changing social interaction that helps you get a much better job, or helps you make peace with something that has been eating away at you for months, will probably arise from conversations with people outside your close-knit social circle rather than in it.

    Our first degree social contacts – friends and family – play a hugely valuable role as sounding boards to get a better perspective on whatever is on our mind. This service is absolutely invaluable. We can describe to them what we’re thinking and how we’re feeling and their feedback helps us to reach conclusions. But they’re probably not the best people for sparking new ideas, eureka moments, breakthroughs in long term problems.

    The sanity check service that our first degree social contacts provide us with is actually a life-saver. Socially isolated people who by definition don’t have the opportunity to get such thoughts and feelings “off their chest” end up suffering as a result. Having their thoughts and feelings forever bouncing around inside their minds and never gaining access to the outside world seems to have a negative impact on their physical and mental health. Those who do have friends and/or family available to talk things over with and take it completely for granted, may not realise how lucky they are.

    Second degree social contacts are the one’s that have access to the vital tidbits of information that can unlock great opportunities. These are the friends of our friends, the friends of our family members, friends and siblings of our colleagues even. These are the people that have access to valuable information that you (and all of your inner circle of first degree contacts) are completely ignorant of and always will be; unless you interact meaningfully with them. By meaningfully I mean build sufficient rapport, efficiently enough to be able to dispense with the polite chit chat quickly and then get on with talk about meaningful topics. Being bold, sharing honest thoughts, best ideas, recent experiences. Giving them the opportunity to offer feedback on whatever’s on your mind, and listening carefully to the feedback, can be extremely inspiring if you give them the benefit of the doubt.

    The new Get Yourself Connected chapter in Sort Your Brain Out 2 describes a research study investigating how people found out about their current job. The majority did not get to hear about the role from people in their inner circle – their first degree social contacts – but instead from people they spoke to infrequently; namely the second and third order social contacts. Friends of friends. And friends of friends of friends. Yet we typically don’t give these people as much time as we should.

    Think back to the last birthday party you went to. How much of an effort did you make with the people who were complete strangers to you? My guess is, not much. If we don’t already know someone it can be very easy to talk ourselves out of making a big social effort with them. But what if you had made a bigger effort? If they’re at the same party as you, then there’s every reason to suspect some loose overlap in your social networks. They may well fall into this second or third circle of contacts that seem to hold all the aces. Similar things happen with people attending the same work conference as you, there are likely to be many people knocking about where you have an acquaintance in common that puts them into this category.

    It is within conversations with these peripheral social circles where the answers to our most pressing questions lie. They won’t all turn into useful contacts in the long run, but it’s a numbers game. You’ve just got to keep at it. Get out there. Talk to people you don’t know that well. Take a chance. Strike up that conversation out of the blue.

    If you want to find that next big opportunity, you’re much less likely to find it among your more immediate social contacts with whom interaction is easy because you’ve known each other for so long. The interaction that completely changes your life will come sooner if you reach out into the 2nd and 3rd circles of your social world. Map it out. Who are your friends friends?

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