I have 765 LinkedIn contacts. According to analyses of LinkedIn data, I'm connected with more people than 67.6 percent of LinkedIn users. That means I'm earning an A in networking, right? Not so fast.

Too often, we collect contacts like people used to collect stamps or pennies. More names, more cards, more sense of accomplishment. But we can get distracted from the real riches of our relationships by constantly seeking new ones. Not only is this a mistake; it also runs contrary to how our brains operate.

The Magic Number: 150

You may have heard of Robin Dunbar or the Dunbar Number. Dunbar, an evolutionary primatologist, discovered a relationship between the size of the mammalian neocortex and the number of social relationships we can maintain. That number in human groups is 150. That's not to say that some tremendously gifted networkers can't handle larger numbers. But the average person tops out around 150.

The people in our Village (as Dunbar calls the 150) are those who know us best. They're our allies, our advocates, our friends, and our colleagues. They've worked side-by-side with us over the years and they know our strengths and our limitations. They have tremendous assets and gifts, yet so many of us focus so much energy on expanding our networks that we forget the connections we already have.

Working the Room Versus Nurturing the Village

I used to think that networking meant "working a room." I would trudge miserably to large networking events where I'd force myself to interact. My best technique for making it through the experience was bargaining. "Just talk to three new people and then you can go home," I'd tell myself. Occasionally, something wonderful would happen: I'd meet a kindred spirit, get a great referral, or learn something interesting.

More often, however, magic happened when I connected and deepened existing relationships with the people in my Village. Here's a sampling of some of the great things that have happened as a result of engaging with my Village:

  • Got introduced to a company that became a new anchor client
  • Devised the perfect way to roll out a new product
  • Keynoted a large conference
  • Found the intellectual property lawyer I needed
  • Learned the best place to buy pastries in Boston's North End (very important!)

My Village is willing to give me these things because we've built trust over the years. I'm constantly sharing with people in my network. They do the same. We've formed mutually rewarding relationships in which it's genuinely delightful to help someone out.

No More Networking Events?

Does this mean that we're all off the hook for large networking events? Unfortunately, no.

Members of our Village tend to be like us in many ways. They have much of the same information, resources, and contacts. People outside the Village live in different worlds. They can help when we want to enter a new field, get a new job, or learn a new skill. So we need new people. But we can't forget about our nearest and dearest: our 150.

The Challenge: Depth Plus Breadth

Our challenge is to balance depth and breadth. We need to resist the lure that tells us we're successful only when we're hobnobbing and meeting new people. We need to remember our Village. That means taking the time to keep up with people, share information, help them out, and listen to what's new with them. It means declining one networking event a month and devoting the two hours you would have spent exchanging cards instead to reaching out to existing contacts. It means depth plus breadth.