I believe there are essentially three types of relationships that influence us day in and day out. Robin Dunbar, a don at Oxford University who specializes in evolutionary anthropology, has done some interesting research on the topic of relationships and social networks.
Dunbar is most well known for “Dunbar’s Number,” 150, which is a reflection of his theory that we cannot maintain more than 150 relationships at a given time in a meaningful way. When I think about my life and the way I interact, this makes perfect sense. In fact, I would say that the number of people I talk to on a regular basis is more like 50, at most.
Now, contrast that to the 1,171 connections I have on LinkedIn or the 1,386 people I’m friends with on Facebook. It’s enough to make you stop and scratch your head for a moment. If research tells us we can have meaningful relationships with 150 people… Why do we have so many connections on our social networks? Why do we follow thousands of people on Twitter? Why do we continue to send friend requests on Facebook?
One answer is that the networks are engineered to encourage you to continue to build a larger network. The larger your network, the more the networks can learn about you, and the more value they can create for their advertisers. But that’s for another day.
There’s another important research concept called “Weak Ties,” which is the product of the work of Mark Granovetter. Malcolm Gladwell sums up the concept in this article with, “Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information.” Malcolm, as usual, is taking complicated academic research and breaking it down to the practical for we pedestrians.
Social networks are about maintaining some form of contact with people outside of our strong tie network to expose ourselves to new ideas, information, and opportunities. Indeed, a deeper look at the weak ties research as it relates to career searching shows us that the majority of introductions which go on to result in a job offer are made my weak ties, not strong ties. The reason being that if there were an opportunity with our strong ties, we would already know about it due to our exposure to similar information. Weak ties don’t suffer from this same challenge.
Let’s sum a bit of this up… research tells us that we can legitimately maintain relationships with about 150 people, give or take a few based on your systems and mindset. Research also tells us that there is great value in our extended network of weak ties, or the connections we have outside of the core 150. This suggests that we should both be selective about the 15o people we allow to influence us most directly, as well as intentional about the way we build our extended network of weak ties to maximize our potential to access exciting new opportunities.
I want to quickly drill down on the 150 strong ties that are so key to our success. Specifically I believe there are three essential groups that are most crucial to our continued growth and development as individuals and professionals.
First, our family. This is the one group that we have very little control over. We don’t select our immediate family, UNTIL we get married and start a new generation of our family. Keeping family close is important because it gives us strength in many ways. Keeping family at a distance can also be important when they do not provide good influence in certain areas of our work. Selecting the right spouse is perhaps the most important decision, as they will have the greatest degree of influence over us of the 150 connections we keep closest. Total connections in the family group = 10 to 25.
The second most important group consists of our mentors, or “personal board of advisors.” I’ve continued to see a trend amongst high performing young professionals in that they maintain relationships with 5-10 key mentors. As Blake Shubert put it, you can think of this group like a corporation thinks of their board of directors. If you were sitting at the head of a conference table, who are the wise people you would want in the other seats to help you make the best decisions to build your vision for your life? For most people, this includes people with whom we share values and whom we look up to in each of the areas of our life (career, financial, spiritual, physical, travel & adventure, learning, and relationships). Total connections in the mentors group = 5 to 15.
The third group consists of what I’ll call mastermind groups. These are peer level connections you’ve chosen to surround yourself with because you believe they will have a positive influence on you in some way. These people might be a part of a formal mastermind group with you, or they might simply be people you regularly surround yourself with (like the Atlanta Global Shapers for me). However you structure these groups, they should consist of the people you most want to be more like. Or in other words, they should make you confident when you hear the Jim Rohn quote about being the average of the five people you spend the most time with. Total connections in the mastermind group = 20 to 50.
If you’re on the lower end of the spectrum, this gives you 35 strong ties. On the upper end, 80 strong ties, or half of the relationships you can maintain with regularity. The remainder of the 150 will likely be made up of the people you have history with and relationships you have accumulated along the path of life. Childhood friends, college acquaintances, colleagues and others. These relationships are still important, but they will have less negative impact on you if you are intentional about the family, mentors, and masterminds you surround yourself with.
What are your thoughts on strong ties? Is there a group I’ve missed that’s important to you? Do you have a contrary opinion? Let me know.