There are many people I'm friendly with, and many more I'm friendly with professionally, but I have very few friend friends. (That doesn't make me unusual; the average adult has between two and five close friends.)
Nature is partly at play. I'm naturally shy and introverted. Nurture is as well; not being popular in high school helped me grow comfortable spending time, and doing things, by myself.
Hold that thought.
Recently I spent a week in Spain checking out La Liga, the Spanish football (soccer) league that, with clubs like Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atletico Madrid is arguably the strongest competition in the world -- and home to my new favorite team, Leganes, and their mascot Super Pepino, a 7-foot tall cucumber I unfortunately resemble.
In the process I spent considerable time with easily the most nationality-diverse group of people I've ever been around. Nathan, from London via Wales, taught me more in a day about world soccer than I've learned in two decades of casual fandom.
Kurt provided one of the best moments of the trip when he had a kick with two children from China outside the Wanda. (Yep: An American taking pictures of a South African playing soccer with kids from China outside of a Spanish stadium. Can't make it up.)
Aleksander from Russia provided a great example of not caring -- in the best possible way -- about what other people might think, especially if it gets in the way of having fun. Arnab provided a fascinating lesson on Indian history and politics.
Mohamad from Indonesia reminded me that humor is universal, Brunno from Brazil that sharing a meal -- especially when you're not sure what you're eating but you know it's great -- is always a great way to bond, Yedan from China that you only need to know a few words of another person's language to become pals...
Hold that thought, too.
The average person's network is limited to people within their industry or area of interest -- not just the people with whom they have things in common, but the people they think can someday help them. (Maybe that's why I get at least ten requests a day -- for advice, assistance, introductions, etc. -- from people I don't know.)
As a result, media people tend to connect with media people, coders with coders, entrepreneurs with entrepreneurs.
Research shows the type of people you know and the types of networks you create is the biggest predictor of career success. As Michael Simmons writes (referencing research by Ron Burt of the University of Chicago):
Burt showed that simply being in an open network instead of a closed one is an extremely good predictor of career success. In an open network, everyone doesn't already know each other. As a result, you are in between many different clusters. In a closed network, everyone already knows each other.
... the further to the right you go toward a closed network, the more you'll repeatedly hear the same ideas, which reaffirm what you already believe. The further left you go toward an open network, the more you'll be exposed to new ideas.
No other factor was more important in predicting career success!
In short, the more open your network, the more successful you are likely to be. You get new ideas, new perspectives, learn new skills and strategies... you become the sum of a much greater set of parts.
Whatever success I've achieved as a writer and speaker was not the result of knowing the "right" people in those industries. Only when I started meeting people outside those industries -- when I started doing what worked for me and not for others -- that things really took off.
But just as importantly, the people I'm most friendly with don't work in the fields of media, or writing, or speaking, or "thought leadership" (whatever that is.) They're entrepreneurs. Race car drivers and crew chiefs. Musicians. Actors. Researchers. Fitness enthusiasts.
People with whom I have one or two things in common.
And a whole bunch of things I don't.
Add to the list some of the people I recently spent time with in Spain. We only had two things in common, but that was enough: An interest in soccer, and an interest in learning about people who are different from us.
And even thought it might sound odd, since while we definitely became friends, one week isn't sufficient to become friend friends... if they ask me for a little help, I won't hesitate.
Not because they're part of my "network." Not because they're "connections." Not because they might someday be able to help me.
But because, unlike all the people who cold-email me, we now have a relationship, however casual.
Reach beyond your normal sphere of connections -- industry, alma mater, interests, etc. -- to build small relationships with people outside of what you consider your "network." People you normally wouldn't connect with, because you don't see how you can help them. People you normally wouldn't connect with because you don't see how they can help you.
"Help" is irrelevant.
What matters is what you can learn, about them and as a result yourself, from interacting with people outside your normal sphere.
Especially if you pick people with whom you share one thing in common that helps spark a relationship... and then have the desire to learn from those with whom you otherwise appear to have little in common.
Aside from the fact they are just as eager to learn about, and from, you.