British anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed that the average human can maintain 150 social relationships. This “Dunbar’s number” as it came to be called, became a talking point in many fields: business, team-building, psychology and more. Networking sites reported that candidates who had 157 relationships reported the highest level of job-offer success. This makes sense. If you are between jobs, the first thing you are going to do is reach out to your friends, or at least, to the people you know, for opportunities. Wouldn’t it make sense to have more “contacts” in that case?
Let me be clear: I am not speaking here of Twitter followers or LinkedIn connections. When I say social relationships, I mean exactly that. People you have met at least once in person and people you have kept in touch with. In business, this has come to be called a network and its addendum verb, networking.
If you are authentic and empathetic, the problem is that networking has such a “matlabi” context. It feels opportunistic to cultivate people just so you can milk them for career opportunities or client contacts. Most of us have trouble doing this.
The solution, at least in my book, is to have a loose set of friendships not because you want to ‘network’ with them or get something from them but because you share a common interest be it golf or bridge or trekking or wine.
In my own life, I have found that the best career opportunities came not through diligent networking but from a person who was in the outer ring of the people that I know– the loose friendship.
I have watched people who are master networkers. Every single one of them hates that term. All of them have a few things in common. First of all, they take pleasure in helping people. When they meet a new person, they think, “What can I offer this person?” rather than “What can I get from this person?” They do this authentically because they have what books call an “abundance mindset.” Somehow they have geared their minds into thinking that what belongs to them will come to them, that the universe is kind and is looking out for them, that they don’t have to scramble or compete for opportunities because the pie is large enough for everyone to eat from. They get ahead not by taking but by giving. These are not good Samaritan folks, although some of them may be. These are hard-driving professionals who think differently.
The next thing that these folks have in common is that they are maintain a loose connection with a large number of people– Dunbar’s 150 but often much more. They may not speak to all 150 of their connections regularly but they somehow connect on a fairly regular basis, whether it is calling once a year on Christmas or Diwali, or sending a birthday card, or sharing an article that would be of interest to the other person. The takeaway: they focus on the other person, not on themselves.
The third thing that these master networkers have in common is that they have figured out a way to be part of communities. To me, this is the easiest way to maintain lots of connections.