Today's Reading


The Melville quote is more than an inspiration, it's a new lens that we can apply to the idea of networks. The structure of someone's network is a map that tells what their life has been like up to this point and where they are going. As a network analyst, sociologist, and professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management, I've spent the last fifteen years studying how people's social networks evolve, what they look like, and what that means for their ability to succeed in the workplace, be happy and healthy, and find personal fulfillment. Vernon Jordan has a rare and special kind of network. To grasp its features, we have to first understand some more common building blocks.

The lowest common denominator of social connection is a dyad—the one-on-one relationships we form with a single individual. Over time, these relationships naturally organize themselves into networks. We've all heard that term, but what are networks, really? Networks are groups of interconnected people, some overlapping one another and others that have no members in common. Through networks, it is possible to leverage our relationships to manifest something much stronger than a bunch of dyads—an outcome where 1 + 1 really does equal 3. Renowned sociologist James S. Coleman explained that social capital makes "possible the achievement of certain ends that would not be attainable in its absence."

There is what's possible, and then there is what's plausible. Three simple topographies characterize most people's networks.

In the network maps of expansionists, brokers, and conveners, each circle represents a person. The network belongs to the person represented by the dark circle in the middle, and the lines denote relationships between them and their friends, as well as the connections between their friends. You may not immediately realize it, but in all of these pictures, there are the same number of people. What you will recognize is that the amount of energy, the effort, that goes into forming and maintaining these ties varies. Brokers are directly tied to only seven people but have indirect access to twelve different viewpoints, experiences, and information sources. Because conveners' friends are more likely than brokers' friends to be friends with one another, conveners maintain nine relationships to get the same information.

My colleague Nicholas Christakis frequently invokes a metaphor to illustrate how different network structures give rise to different properties. Both graphite and diamonds are made out of the exact same thing: carbon. Graphite is soft, dark, and so commonplace that we are likely to find it in the backpack of a six-year-old. Diamonds, on the other hand, are hard, clear, and rare, and are arguably one of the most expensive status signals on the planet.

What distinguishes graphite from diamonds is the manner in which the carbon atoms are arranged. In graphite, the carbon atoms are arranged in sheets. In diamonds, they are arranged tetrahedrally. These different structural arrangements give rise to different

In much the same way as with carbon, the same set of social relationships—composed of the same people, but in different configurations—give rise to vastly different ends. Imagine two teams composed of the same people. In one example, everyone works together and collaborates with everyone else. In the other instance, the people remain the same but the team usually works in specialized sub-teams with a liaison going between them. Despite having the same members, the teams would have radically different strengths. The same is true with personal networks.

In a network context, expansionists, brokers, and conveners each have distinct social and professional benefits and drawbacks.

* Expansionists have extraordinarily large networks, are well-known, and have an uncanny ability to work a room. However, they often have trouble maintaining social ties and leveraging them to create value for themselves or others.

* Brokers generate value by bringing together typically disconnected parties from different social worlds. Their networks have huge information benefits and are highly innovative, since the majority of new ideas come from recombination.

* Conveners build dense networks in which their friends are also friends. This type of network has outsize trust and reputational benefits.

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