Success, we're often told, is largely about whom you know. Make the right connections and you're halfway to getting wherever it is you want to go. That's why so many ambitious professionals spend so much time networking, building relationships, and collecting online connections.
But what if all the effort you put into meeting and staying in touch with people is actually making you less likely to be successful? That's what the Community Company's CEO, Scott Gerber, argues in a thought-provoking recent HBR blog post.
Why 5 Beats 50
It's not that Gerber disagrees about the importance of relationships. If anything, he is even more convinced of their centrality to success than the average person. It's just that Gerber believes most of us go about cultivating and leveraging relationships all wrong.
"We live in a time when 'bigger is better' is the prevailing assumption when it comes to, well, just about anything. So it's only natural for us to want to supersize our network of connections -- both online and off -- because the more people we know, the greater our chances of being exposed to opportunities that may lead to professional advancement, potential mentors, material success, and so on," he writes, describing the usual approach to networking.
What's wrong with that? The fact is that we all only have 24 hours in a day. Having a huge, loosely connected network generally means that you devote precious time to very nice near strangers. Those are hours you are not spending with people who truly nourish and amplify you -- what Gerber terms your inner circle.
"By giving your time to 50 people rather than, say, five, you are making far less of an impact in the world than the sheer volume of your network would have you think," he says. Rather than amassing an ever growing list of casual acquaintances, it's better to devote the vast bulk of your time to that fellow entrepreneur who really understands your struggles, the old high school buddy who keeps you grounded, or the super smart friend who always pushes you to see the world in fresh ways.
An old idea reborn
Gerber's idea of an "inner circle" may sound fresh and unusual in our social media age, but societies have understood the importance of this sort of life team for generations. "In Okinawa, Japan, a place where the average life expectancy for women is around 90, the oldest in the world, people form a kind of social network called a moai -- a group of five friends who offer social, logistic, emotional, and even financial support for a lifetime," reports a recent New York Times article on the role of friendship in longevity.
"Traditionally, their parents put them into moais when they are born, and they take a lifelong journey together," author Dan Buettner explains.
The moai is a sweet notion, but it feels far removed from our lonely times. Still, the appeal of such a tightly knit social group hasn't entirely been erased in our own culture. You can hear echoes of the idea that your inner circle steers your life course in the old adage, "You become the average of the five people you spend the most time with." You can also probably feel the value of such an inner circle in how much longing the idea stirs in you.
Go ahead and unfriend people
But while the idea that a handful of deep connections is more powerful than a sprawling network of hundreds or thousands has deep roots and lingering appeal, how do you actually act on it if you've already amassed a huge network? Thanks to all the hype, skipping out on traditional networking can feel dangerous. But according to Gerber and others, it's time we all got a little bolder about pruning ties that don't really nourish us.
"Assess yourself," Gerber advises. "Are you in control of the relationships in your life, or are you ceding that control to others? ... If you are not deciding the rules of engagement and making deliberate choices about whom you are spending time with, then you need to take back that control. Start by making a plan to lessen your time investment in people and activities that make unrewarding demands on you, until you can fully withdraw from the person, commitment, or activity."
Wistia co-founder and CEO Chris Savage was even more blunt with his advice in a recent Medium post: "We let people 'happen' to us. But if you put some work into thinking about just what kind of people you want around -- and exercise some conscious choice around whom you include in your network -- it can be one of the most powerful routes to personal growth," he insists.
Could you get more personal growth and happiness out of a smaller, deeper network?