Why That Guy You See in the Elevator Every Day is More Helpful for Your Career than Your Closest Friends

“No matter what you want to do, you’ve got enough potential in your network to do it.”

READ ON TO DISCOVER:

  • What weak and dormant ties can do for our personal networks
  • How a club promoter used his unconventional background to build a successful nonprofit
  • Why Kevin Bacon doesn’t have a monopoly on great connections

David Burkus is a bestselling author, speaker, and associate professor of leadership and innovation at Oral Roberts University. His newest book, Friend of a Friend: Understanding the Hidden Networks That Can Transform Your Life and Your Career, offers readers a new perspective on how to grow their networks and build key connections—one based on the science of human behavior, not rote networking advice. He sat down with Claire Diaz-Ortiz, former head of social innovation at Twitter and author of Design Your Day and Twitter for Good, to talk about how to authentically work the network you already have.

Claire: You started your book by saying that networking makes some people feel dirty. I want to ask you personally about your own experience as a networker over the last few years.

David: I don’t know that I’ve ever felt dirty. I have definitely been to those events where you wonder why you came. You end up stirring your Diet Coke in the corner of the room, not really talking to anyone. You end up either talking to people you already know, or talking to no one, because it’s so hard to break through that initial tension. It’s a room full of adults and it feels like an eighth grade school dance. Everybody’s just apart from each other.

I’ve probably suffered the same temptation a lot of people have, which is to start to blame themselves for being bad [at networking.] It was really encouraging in researching the book, to find out [that] it’s actually the lack of structure in these events that creates a problem in networking, that creates these weird feelings; feeling dirty or feeling like you’re taking a risk, or just feeling like you’re about to use people.

On the other hand, writing the book made me realize that a lot of things I’ve done to build connections has been in line with a lot of the research. You’re in this situation, too. You and I do not exactly live in midtown Manhattan. We’re not in the heart of the literary community or the tech community. So, [we] have to be a little bit more deliberate to get a sense of that whole network that we’re trying to make further inroads into.

Claire: I absolutely agree with that. What’s interesting about networking, though, is that we either think of it as useless and dirty or something that is supposed to produce an immediate ROI. Your book immediately explains why that idea of networking with an immediate ROI doesn’t work. So talk to me about why the cold email doesn’t work, and then let’s get into this big [idea] that the forgotten parts of our network yield bigger opportunities than most of us realize.

“We either think of [networking] as useless and dirty or something that is supposed to produce an immediate ROI.”

David: I think those two things are connected. So we feel like [networking] is supposed to be immediately useful to both parties, or at least to us—that’s why we’re engaging in it. That’s also why we feel dirty, because we feel like we’re using people. A lot of the “dirtiness” comes, too, from trying to take people’s advice. You read traditional networking books, and there’s some out there that are great. But they’re one [person’s] advice about what they did in their past experience. [When] you take that advice to craft an email, or go to a networking mixer or a conference, you end up feeling inauthentic. No wonder—you’re trying to be them. Not you.

Why That Guy You See in the Elevator Every Day is More Helpful for Your Career than Your Closest Friends

The better approach is figuring out how networks work, and then responding accordingly. [With] cold emails, it’s not that they don’t work—it’s a numbers game. I had the chance to chat a little bit a couple weeks ago with Rory Vaden, who is a sales guy and grew up doing door to door. He’ll tell you about the law of numbers and the idea that if you do it enough, eventually you’ll get yeses—cold emails are the same thing.

“I’m not willing to write 100 emails to get one person to say yes. I would much rather do it all through a combination of what I call the ‘hidden network.’”

But I’m not willing to write 100 emails to get one person to say yes. I would much rather do it all through a combination of what I call the “hidden network,” which is a combination of weak and dormant ties—people you know but you don’t know that well or haven’t talked to in a while, and the people that are one or two introductions away from you. Most of us have, inside of that hidden network, everyone that we need to grow a fulfilling career. We don’t know everyone. There are lots of movie producers that I would love to be connected to that I can’t currently call. However, I don’t think I’m ever going to make movies.

For what I do—books, traveling around, speaking, connecting with other thinkers—I either have or can be introduced to almost everyone that I need through that hidden network. I think everyone’s career is that way. Between those weak and dormant ties, and the people [who] are one or two introductions away, that’s pretty much everyone in the professional network that you need to get in touch with.

“Most of us have, inside of that hidden network, everyone that we need to grow a fulfilling career.”

Claire: We’ve just touched on this idea of why you can’t send one email and get a great response, but your book starts with this guy, Adam Rifkin, basically sending one email and getting a great response. Tell us why that worked for Adam.

David: Friend of a Friend opens with the story of Adam Rifkin reaching back out to Graham Spencer [after] he had just sold his tech startup, Excite, in the ’90s. Adam reaches out to him, and basically wants some advice on starting his first startup. Spencer is just inundated with requests, because he just sold a company for billions and billions of dollars, [and] one of the few cold emails that he responds to is Adam Rifkin’s.

The reason is quite simple—they’re dormant ties. They used to be better connected years ago, when they were both playing around in this space—they built a webpage together about punk rock bands.

So, fast forward almost a decade, you have this cold email that actually works, because it’s not actually cold. It’s literally just a friend reaching back out to an old friend. Of course you’d make time for that.

Why That Guy You See in the Elevator Every Day is More Helpful for Your Career than Your Closest Friends

Claire: I love it. So what’s the difference between a dormant and a weak tie?

David: This is actually something that I think a lot of people confuse. A weak tie is someone that you know but you don’t know that well. You might call them an acquaintance. That lady that you see at the gym every once in a while, or that guy who works on a different floor, so you only see each other if there’s cake in the break room. Those are weak ties. You know them, but you don’t know them that well.

A dormant tie is different. A dormant tie is someone that you know, and potentially even knew really well, but they fell by the wayside. So you used to hang out all the time, and then they changed jobs. Or you used to hang out all the time, and then she moved to Buenos Aires. Dormant and weak ties are very different things, but they share the same principle, which is that they’re not close to you in the network.

In taking a network science approach to networking, you realize that the people that you know the best—the people who you to go to for help, advice, or introductions—they tend to just know the same people you know, have access to the same information you have access to, think the same way you think. They’re redundant. They know exactly what you know, so they’re not all that useful to you.

The weak and dormant ties are usually somewhere else in this broader network of your industry, your sector, or your company. They have access to information you don’t have access to. I’m particularly fond of dormant ties, because they used to be closer to you. We’ve all had those friends who we haven’t talked to in forever, but when you do, you just pick up where you left off.

“The people that you know the best—the people who you to go to for help, advice, or introductions—they tend to just know the same people you know, have access to the same information you have access to, think the same way you think.”

Claire: You talk in the book about Scott Harrison, who is a mutual friend and the founder of Charity Water. Five or six years ago, when I wrote a book called Twitter for Good, I talked about Scott in the book—he had been a club promoter, and then he started this non-profit. What a crazy shift.

[When you told his story] in your book, I had this realization of why his career shift worked in a way that I had never understood before. So, tell me why it worked.

David: Scott’s story is amazing. Scott was a club promoter, that person who could throw these parties worth tens of thousands of dollars. If he’s wearing a specific watch [that he’s supposed to promote,] and there’s a camera nearby, he knows how to hold his drink in such a way that the camera captures the face of the watch. He has a [high] level of awareness for all of this superficial, rather materialistic stuff. Scott eventually hits this breaking point—he was living in this penthouse, and he had tons of money, and he became aware of how much of a terrible human that he was.

He decides to do something different. He’s deep in the world of club promotion, and the New York party scene, so he has no connections to the world of philanthropy. He starts reaching out cold to all of these different charities, asking to volunteer. The only place that responds out of the dozens and dozens of emails that he sends, is an organization called Mercy Ships, which is essentially a floating hospital that goes into developing countries and provides medical care. They needed a photojournalist for an upcoming trip and said, “If you can pay your own way and take photos, you can come with us.” This one initial trip lasts a couple months, [but] Scott keeps extending it, and he ends up spending two years traveling the world with Mercy Ships. It’s there that he gets the idea that a lack of access to clean water is creating a lot of the diseases that they are treating.

So he finally comes back to New York and re-engages those weak and dormant ties. He pivots to a regular model of trying to generate recurring revenue and micro-fundraisers for his organization, Charity Water. He got hundreds of people to donate their birthdays to charity.

What I think is interesting is that none of this would have happened if he had been networked into the philanthropic community. Scott even told me [that] his role models are tech companies, not charities.

So many of us use location or lack of access to [a particular] community as the reason why we can’t get involved in it. Scott is a beautiful counterexample. No matter what you want to do, you’ve got enough potential in your network to do it. And actually, it might look so much different and so much better because you’re not connected to that community. So start now.

“No matter what you want to do, you’ve got enough potential in your network to do it.”

Claire: The other revelation I had from reading your book was that Kevin Bacon isn’t special. Using the Kevin Bacon principle [for ourselves,] we can actually connect to more people that we thought.

David: The six degrees of Kevin Bacon game [came from] a Visa commercial, where he loses his ID, so he finds this connection to the store owner through six people who connect back to him. We think, “Kevin must be really connected.” But he’s not. The reality is that there’s enough other people in the network that are closing what [network scientist] Ronald Burt called “structural holes” that you can get to anyone else in six degrees. You don’t actually need to go through Kevin Bacon. You can do it for anyone.

Most of us think we just need to acquire more and more and more connections, and then one day, they’ll all be useful. No. You can start now with what you have, and you can probably find a bridge to anybody that you want to meet.

“You can start now with what you have, and you can probably find a bridge to anybody that you want to meet.”

This conversation has been edited and condensed.