On Networks and Communities

I have noticed that many people measure their success through the size of their network. They believe that the larger your network is, the more you can accomplish because the network represents people from a diverse range of backgrounds and expertise. I have heard a lot of so-called “networking advice” over the years, which people use to help expand the size of their networks. The one thing that I learned from listening to people’s thoughts on personal networks is that although networks open up opportunities, most of people’s best accomplishments are due to working with a different subset of people: their personal community. I have written about personal communities before, but I feel it is important to further discuss the importance of working with “A” players, and reflect on the impact of having a strong personal community.

The main problem I have identified with networking — and that many people have likely expressed over the years — is that networking involves you developing shallow connections with other people. There is only a small amount of people with whom we can cultivate close connections, because we have a limited amount of time available. Networking — although important — optimizes for the size of one’s network, rather than the quality of their connections. It is better to have five very close friends in your personal community than a network of 100 people with whom you rarely talk and your relationships are primarily transactional — you do them a favor, they do one for you as well.

The main reason for this is that your personal community — the people with whom you spend the most time and invest heavily in building good relationships — will be there no matter what the problem is. Your personal community will have gotten to know you over the last few months and years, and so will also be able to provide you with more intricate guidance whenever you need assistance If you have a major decision to make, your personal community will be there to help. Your broader network is probably not going to be able to provide you with good counsel due to the infrequent nature of their communication with you. In sum, it is better to have a few great connections than dozens of low-quality relationships.

Networking and personal communities have different interpretations of the concept of compounding. In networks, compounding is all about the size of your network. As you forge new connections and your reputation develops, you will start to see more people become part of your network. If you cultivate poor-quality relationships, then you will start to see that your network decreases in size — people don’t want to work with people worse than them. On the other hand, compounding in the context of personal communities is all about building a closer connection with a small subset of people — the people who you have deemed as “A” players: the people you want to work with.

All of the main characteristics that make up a good relationship — closeness, trust, transparency, honesty — all compound. As your relationship with someone develops, you will feel closer to them and as if you can let your guard down a little so you can both focus on doing your best work. You know that you can trust the other person, and that trust is only going to become stronger as the connection matures. These compound effects apply to any relationship: friends, family, romantic. The important thing to take away is that this interpretation of compounding only works when you invest a sufficient amount of time and energy into a relationship — the context of compounding differs in personal communities than networks.

I am writing about this topic again because I have recently gained further insight into the notion of hanging around with people who are better than you. I believe that the best personal communities — the best connections — that we make are with people who are slightly better than us. The common maxim “you are the reflection of the five to ten people with whom you spend the most time” applies here — you will inherit the characteristics of your personal community. If you hang around with ambitious people all day, then you will most likely become more ambitious. Why? Mostly because we all naturally want to fit in, and if our close community are all ambitious, then we will feel better if we become more ambitious — we can better fit in.

Conversely, if you hang around with people who procrastinate and have poor control over their time, you are more likely to develop that characteristic, for the same reason as mentioned above: you will want to fit in. There is also a strong feedback loop when it comes to developing relationships that applies here — when you start to become a better person in front of people who are better than you, they will take notice and you will start to become more aware of your progress. Warren Buffett eloquently summarized this effect by stating “I learned that it pays to hang around with people better than you are, because you will float upward a little bit.” Working with people who are better than you will most likely make you a better person over time, because you want to fit in. The people that I want to work with are those who are better than me because I know that I will be able to learn a lot from them. As I learn from these people, our connection will compound and become stronger over time.

Personal networks are all about choosing, as aforementioned, the best people with whom to work. There is no guide toward doing this, but one of the things I look out for is principled people. I want to work with people who are not willing to compromise their principles — their integrity — because that is the easier thing to do. This comes to the final lesson I have learned about personal communities: you should only work with people with whom you envision working for the years. This also applies in the context of friendships and romantic relationships for that matter. I often spend time researching people or asking about them before I decide to go all-in with a relationship because I don’t want to waste my time developing a connection with someone who does not value the same things as me. If I invest a small amount of time up-front, then I can be more confident that the relationship will work out over time. After all, if someone is not an “A” player, is not better than me, or does not hold the same principles as me, then it is unlikely that our relationship will work out over the long-term. Relationships compound; you want to develop ones which will last long enough to realize the full potential of this effect.

Build a personal network. Work with people better than you. Work with principled people. Relationships compound.