A Daily Habit to Light up Your Social Network

The getting is in the giving

Source: Gerd Altmann, Pixabay.com

How many people do you know? What’s your guess?

According to Tian Zheng at the University of Columbia, an average American knows around 600 people. Other estimates suggest that number could be a bit higher — around 3500 people or more.

Let’s call this your Acquaintance Circle.

Out of the people in your ‘acquaintance’ group, you are likely to have a ‘clan’ of around 150 people. These are the people you would remember faces, names, and personal information with very little difficulty. These are the people you encounter daily at work, social clubs, neighborhoods, and religious groups.

Let’s call this the My People Circle.

Out of this group, there’s an even smaller number, perhaps 15–30, that you would consider close or intimate. These are the people you share confidences with, invite over for holidays, and spend most of your time with.

Let’s call this your Inner Circle.

We can illustrate these groups like the figure below:

We naturally have a large Acquaintance Circle. Our My People Circle is much smaller. Our Inner Circle is smaller still. Admittedly the circles have borders that are somewhat fuzzy, and you could probably come up with additional categories and overlapping circles. However, for our discussion today, this simple model should suffice.

Ever since I entered higher education, the most common career advice I was given was to network, network, network. Attend conferences, talk to colleagues, print some business cards, and hand them out like candy.

In today’s world with LinkedIn and other social networks, it’s even easier to expand our personal networks. One click of a button, and we’ve just widened our Acquaintance pool.

What I’ve discovered, however, is that just ‘knowing’ (or following or friending) many people is not enough. The value of the relationship is closely related to the depth of the relationship.

Barely acquainted correlates with barely any help. Deep relationships, in contrast, produce the most fruit.

How do we get the most out of our relationships?

Benefits from Relationships

First, a few caveats.

Although I’m speaking of getting ‘benefits’ from a relationship with someone else, a relationship is not a one-sided affair. Nor are the benefits strictly limited to business transactions. I’ll discuss this some more at the end.

Second, although the value of a relationship is related to depth, it is not a linear relationship. Although we get high value from our Inner Circle relationships, a little extra effort in our Acquaintance Circle or My People Circle can boost huge dividends. Let me illustrate this with a personal story.

The Family Vacation and Friendships

Every year my family travels across the country to visit our extended family that lives on the other side of the United States. We typically spend most of our time in Utah where my wife grew up, and where I went to school. Despite the fact that we each have many friends living there, we very rarely take time to connect with many of them.

We’re typically so focused on maximizing our time with the most important people in our Inner Circle — parents, siblings, grandparents, nieces, nephews — that we don’t have much time to spend with people outside that circle.

I had come to accept that this was a necessary priority. I had to put the most energy into the people that mattered most.

However, during 2020, when we were cut off from in-person interactions with almost everyone, I realized something valuable. It doesn’t take a long, in-person connection to make a valuable connection.

I’ve always valued in-person connections in contrast to other methods of communication. It’s hard to beat going out to dinner, going on vacation, or having extended conversations with someone. However, with this attitude, I developed the erroneous idea that if I couldn’t spend long hours with someone, then it wasn’t worth spending much time at all.

During the pandemic, though, I realized that I was not going to have a year of connecting with people in my industry at conferences, seminars, and the like. I wasn’t even going to be able to connect with my closest connections in the ways I was normally used to doing.

So I tried something a little unusual for me. I reached out on LinkedIn and Facebook to some old friends I hadn’t spoken to in person in years and gave a virtual hello. I also asked a few of them if we could setup a Zoom call.

One of my best experiences in 2020 was reaching out to some friends with whom I had worked doing voluntary missionary service in the early 2000s. Although I hadn’t spoken to some of them in years, we shared a message by Facebook and then connected over the phone or by Zoom. Like war veterans, we had stories to swap and experiences to recount. In some ways, it felt like hardly any time had passed.

“Why didn’t I do this before?” was what I wondered to myself after finishing each conversation.

I tried the same thing with some work colleagues I hadn’t spoken to in years. In all instances, I was able to set up a short phone call and have some marvelous conversations. I learned things about my industry that I would have been lucky to learn from a 1-week conference traveling to another city.

Lighting up the Network Map

Source: Gerd Altmann, Pixabay.com

In my mind, an interpersonal network is a web of connections. Each person I know is a lighted node on that network. However, the nature of relationships is that unless I spend time on my relationships the light — the strength of the connection — tends to fade.

This is where the non-linear piece comes in. For our Inner Circle, we have to work very hard to maintain our closest relationships. We need to invest time in our spouses, children, parents, and dear friends to keep them close to us.

However, for our acquaintances, it only takes a small effort to noticeably re-ignite a node. A phone call, an email, a note of appreciation, or a random act of service is all it takes to re-kindle a relationship and leave it well lighted for some time.

2-Minute, 2-Week Challenge

Here’s the challenge for the next 2 weeks: Take 2 minutes each day and reach out to a friend, colleague, or extended family member that you haven’t reached out to in a while. Send them an appreciative note by email, text, or social media. Bonus points if you set up a call or videoconference.

In case you need a social media prompt:

“Hey [friend you haven’t talked to in years], I just saw you post something on Facebook. I was thinking about our time together when we [fill in the blank]. I really appreciate how you always [fill in the blank]. Hope you’re doing well.”

Or a quick email prompt:

“Hey [so and so], with everything being so crazy in the last year, I was just thinking about you and your family and wondering how everything is going. How’s life these days?”

You’ll add your own style to these emails. In general, a message that is short, thoughtful, and appreciative goes a long way.

Pro Tip #1

As a first pro tip, if you use social media to reach out, intentionally schedule the time each day you’ll check your social media account. You want to avoid getting sucked into the social media vortex and create a bad habit out of a good one. If you schedule your outreach time, you’ll make the best use of your time.

Pro Tip #2

Second, if you have a quiet time in the morning or evening, use that time to let yourself think about who would really benefit from you reaching out and saying hello.

I once had some quiet time where I was just sifting through contacts on my phone while I was on a business trip. I noticed the name of my cousin and had the thought to just reach out and send a text. We probably hadn’t communicated in 2 years or more — he lived on the other side of the country, and our paths never crossed.

I decided to follow that thought, and I sent him a text.

It turns out that — at that moment — he was on business in the very city that I would pass through on my way home. As a result of my text, we connected and grabbed dinner as a mid-point on my 6-hour drive home.

Call it what you will — inspiration, voice of the universe, God’s spirit, the subconscious — but I’ve found there is a guiding influence in our thoughts when we’re open, quiet, and calm.

The Benefits

Perhaps this whole networking comes across as a bit mercenary. It’s definitely come across that way to me in the past — especially in a business context. The concept of “see how many people you can network with to exploit their time, money, and talents” definitely doesn’t seem like the basis for long-term relationship success.

The true value in relationships, though, is in the giving. The highest value of any relationship is the joy you can feel when you can genuinely connect with and help someone else. It just so happens that this is also the most likely way to get something of benefit in return.

Thus, in the world of relationships, the rich get richer. The more you help others, the happier you’ll feel. The better connected you’ll become and the more opportunities you’ll have to make new relationships. It’s a virtuous cycle that expands upward and outward as your circles grow and strengthen.

The great part is: it doesn’t take any capital to get started in the investing. Just some time and goodwill.

Take two minutes today and try it.

Keep getting better!

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PhD Chemist, father of six kids, and local bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.