Your Village

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

According to Robin Dunbar**, no matter how the march of technology goes on, fundamentally we’re all human, and being human has its limits.  Such as our capacity for connecting and maintaining social relationships, a trait which averages 150.  The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us.  Cognitively, we’re just not built for more.  These 150 people are the ones you won’t feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.

This group of 150 people, my village, are those who know me best.  They’ve 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 with our villages.

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.

So, instead of wasting energy amassing the largest friend count on Facebook, switch your thinking.  Focus on being trustworthy.  Keep your word.  Follow up on your commitments.  Give reliable, accurate information, and, if you can’t, say so.  Don’t try to be something you aren’t.  Get to know people, and give to them so they come to value you.  All of these activities will develop the quality of your network.

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 (phew) and devoting the two hours you would’ve spent exchanging cards instead to reaching out to existing contacts.

It means depth plus breadth.

** Dunbar’s ideas are regularly invoked in the attempt to replicate and enhance the social dynamics of the face-to-face world.  Software engineers and designers are basing their thinking on what has come to be called Dunbar’s Number.  Path, a mobile photo-sharing and messaging service founded in 2010, is built explicitly on the theory—it limits its users to 150 friends.  Facebook, too, is built on Dunbar’s principle.