Distant ties often yield the most significant opportunities. Learn how to make the most of yours.
We’ve all heard this job advice before: When it comes to landing that career-changing position, it’s not what you do or how good you do it that matter — it’s whom you know.
But as the world around us gets smaller, our networks actually become much larger. And since our networks are more expansive than they’ve ever been, there’s never been a better moment for improving our professional — and even our personal — lives. Getting outside of your immediate circle and making connections is vital, not just for job leads, but also to build a vibrant, successful and supported personal life.
“Close, deep relationships are important in life,” said Ramsey Alwin, Director of Financial Resilience Thought Leadership at AARP. “But it also helps to have a vast network to tap to navigate the many life transitions we all will continue to experience as we age. Whether you’re moving to a new city, getting a divorce, or changing jobs – knowing a gal that knows a guy that knows a guy who can help you goes a long way in making the new life transition less overwhelming.”
In fact, according to AARP research, the people you barely know — or know only through a degree of separation — can be a game-changing investment.
And the power of weak ties goes beyond job hunts, it’s also valuable for life situations like a change in relationship status, new caregiving responsibilities for the old or young, or simple tasks like finding a good dentist or plumber.
This isn’t an entirely new concept. Way back in 1929, the Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy wrote a short story called “Chain-Links,” in which he speculated that anyone could be linked to anyone else by just a few personal connections — from the lowliest laborer to the most illustrious leader.
This phenomenon, he concluded, was a modern one: “…Something is going on here, a process of contraction and expansion which is beyond rhythms and waves,” Karinthy wrote. “Something coalesces, shrinks in size, while something else flows outward and grows.”
The idea was given a practical test in 1967, with sociologist Stanley Milgram’s “small world” experiment. Milgram mailed packages to random people in Kansas or Nebraska, asking them to return it to a stranger — a student at Harvard University. The catch was that the package had to travel from hand to to hand. A farmer, for example, handed his package off to a local minister, who had a colleague in Boston, and so on. Most packages passed through between two and ten people before they made it to their targets.
In both Karinthy’s thought experiment and Milgram’s practical experiment, the links between people depended not on close, personal friendships, but on looser acquaintanceships. This idea was further established by Mark Granovetter at Johns Hopkins in 1973: weak ties are in some cases the strongest. In his paper “The Power of Weak Ties,” Granovetter argued that “micro-level” social links could be the most fruitful.
Since any two people with strong social ties — spouses, colleagues, close friends — tend to share the same social circles, he wrote, people would be wiser to look to more casual relationships to develop a stronger overall network, which can be relied upon in diverse life situations. This means introducing yourself to new people: the grocery clerk, the crossing guard, your cousin’s college roommate, or a new barber. As AARP put it in a recent report: “Weak ties have access to information and contacts that you might not have.”
Weak ties, according to Alwin’s research, are especially important for mid-life, mid-career workers — as well as minorities and immigrants, for whom weak ties can be a bridge to an otherwise hostile job market. But it can also help millennials, who may find themselves in need of networks of support when caring for two generations at once.
Alwin said she’d noticed examples in her own life: When she recently conducted an inventory of her social connections, she found that she had strong ties among well-established colleagues her age and older, but she had few connections to younger peers. “I talk at the water cooler with the interns, but do I take them out for coffee?” she said. “I realized how quickly you can lose touch with emerging leaders if you’re not intentional about it.” As we age, our social networks spread out horizontally, but at a certain point they begin to contract; it’s important to maintain a broad network to beat loneliness and isolation and “shore up relevance and resilience,” Alwin said.
So how do you use those weak ties to broaden your professional and social network — and find support when you need it most? First, conduct an audit of who you know. Notice patterns: are all your friends of the same age as you, or the same religion? What kind of people are underrepresented among your weak ties — and how could you change that?
Social media can be a good place to start. Resources such as LinkedIn and Facebook can show you who you’re connected to, and who those people are connected to. It’s easy to message someone you know and ask for an introduction to someone you don’t know: “There’s a lot of transferable credibility through these tangential relationships,” Alwin said.
But it’s also important to increase your range of weak ties — across age, race, gender and class and geographic borders. It can be as simple as taking an evening class at the community center in a language you don’t speak, joining a community group, or learning a new sport. Alwin said she broadened her weak ties by becoming a Girl Scout troop leader and getting to know more parents in the neighborhood.
Then consider changing your routine. Remember that everyone you meet, even if you don’t become close, could be a potential bridge to an opportunity. And don’t be afraid to reach out, Alwin says.
“People want to help and to be helpful,” she said. “And they want others to learn through their experiences.”