Friend of a Friend: Understanding the Hidden Networks That Can Transform Your Life and Your Career (Book Summary)

Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve ever known.” – Chuck Palahniuk, Invisible Monsters

While studying at UCL, one of the most diverse universities in the UK, I have found two interesting social observations: (1) most people tend to stick together with their own nationalities and (2) some people just seem to be more connected than the others. Although there are groups where people hang out with different nationalities, these tend to be the exceptions rather than the norm. I never paid much attention to these and simply conclude that (1) humans like familiarity and there is less barrier to integrate with others who share the same nationalities. For (2), maybe, some people are just more extroverted. After reading the book Friend of A Friend (affiliate link), I am surprised to learn that these two phenomenons are more nuanced that they seem.

In Friend of A Friend (affiliate link), David Burkus sets out to apply ideas from Sociology and Network Theory in fostering new relationships. His main thesis is that in creating new connections, it is not necessarily about who you know, but about knowing who is a “friend of a friend” and applying the correct strategy in navigating these networks. The book then explains how networks work and the implications for anyone looking to improve their connections.

Each chapter starts with an abstract of the chapter, two anecdotal evidence or stories, empirical evidence and actionable advice at the end. This summary focuses on what I think are the most important insights from each chapter and the actionable advice that Burkus suggested. 

Weak Ties

Chapter 1 examines “weak ties” or people that we maintain a connection but rarely interact with. Meanwhile, strong ties are people we regularly meet – friends, families and co-workers. Burkus argues that weak ties may present us with bigger opportunities than strong ties as strong ties are more likely to share the same contacts as us.

On the other hand, our weak ties have different social circles and learn different information than our social circle. Therefore, weak ties are the best source of information to solve our dilemma.

Another form of connection, dormant ties, or weak ties that used to be stronger is also important in getting new information. Although dormant ties can provide us with valuable information, most people tend to lose contact because of specific reasons. These reasons make some people not comfortable reconnecting with dormant ties.

When given a choice to reconnect with dormant ties, most people tend to avoid factors such as novelty and engagement (Walter et. al, 2015). This is because reconnecting with old contacts may provoke anxiety. Hence, most people prefer to re-connect with whom they had spent a lot of time together.

Characteristics of Social Networks: The 3S (Six Degrees of Separation, Structural Holes, Silo)

Chapter 2 discusses the first feature of social networks. Burkus presents us with the six degrees of separation theory, whereby any person can be connected to another person on the planet within six or fewer connections. To utilise this effect, Burkus suggests using or creating networks such as university alumni network or professional groups.

In Chapter 3, Burkus presents us with another characteristic of the social networks, called “structural holes”, or the gap between two groups of people. People who fill the structural holes, “broker” are the people who become the gatekeeper of information between the two groups, thus having more power than those who only stay within the groups. In terms of career strategy, Burkus argues that filling the “structural holes” is a better strategy than climbing the ladder vertically as you would develop relationships with different groups.

Chapter 4 discusses the dilemma of being in a silo. Being in a silo for too long may damage one’s career while not being in a silo at all may damage one’s own growth. Burkus argues that silos may not be necessarily bad, and one should focus on knowing how long to interact with a silo. When interacting with a silo, ask the following questions:

  • What are you working on right now?
  • What is holding you back and how can I help?
  • What do you need prompting on?

Chapter 5 builds on previous chapters and point out that it is better for networks of collaboration to be temporary, rather than permanent as ideas and knowledge dissipate when a person moves around different groups.  

Strategies of Networking

Chapter 6 discusses ways one can grow one’s networks such by making introductions for others first.

Chapter 7 discusses how having large networks begets a bigger one. This situation, called Matthew Effect which is coined after the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus says: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away”. This cumulative advantage applies not only to capital and knowledge accumulation but also to one’s networks.

Chapter 8 presents us with another networking strategy. Suppose we want to be well-known within a community, what do we do? Do we approach every person, or do we meet the few connected persons in the community?

Burkus points out interesting empirical and anecdotal evidence in this chapter, arguing that the latter is the better way. If it is not possible to meet the most connected persons in the network, the second-best strategy is to connect with other people around the target first, especially with your own mutual connections. If multiple people around the target are talking about you, you will have a higher chance of making that connection. 

Homophily and Why Networking Events Suck

Chapter 9 examines homophily, a theory that predicts that we are more likely to develop close ties to those who are like us. In social networks, this means that networks of individuals tend to become more clustered and dispersed over time. Burkus points out that one has to actively seek people from different groups to get alternative perspectives. This means to seek out people from different industries, department, function, race, religion, political and ideology.

Chapter 10 scrutinises networking events and why they are flawed, namely, because one tends to stick with the people they already know. Even when we make new contacts, we tend to choose people who disproportionately are very similar to ourselves, whether in terms of occupation, industry, experience, training or worldview. So, what are the alternatives to this?

Burkus recommends us to stop “trying to meet new people” and focus on activities rather than relationship themselves. Activities that have shared purpose, evokes passions or emotions, requires interdependence and has something at stake tend to draw more diverse groups of people and create stronger bonds among participants. Such activities include cooking class, golf, volunteering and sports. 

Unless there is an external force acting on the groups, it is very difficult for people to break from their current group. Rather than fighting against homophily, the strategy above make use of it. Just by having a genuine interest in a new topic or an activity, one has extend himself to another group, thus, fostering new connections.

Multiplexity and the Complexity of Human Relationships

Chapter 11 explores multiplexity, which happens when individuals share different social connections. For example, two co-workers who also engage in the same sports together share and are neighbours are multiplex relationships as they are connected by multiple social contexts. Multiplex relationships are likely to develop stronger trust and bonds, thus becoming long-lasting and more valuable. An implication of this insight is that separating friends in one category and colleagues in another may not be a good strategy.

Conclusion

Friend of A Friend is a well-researched and well-written book that seeks to apply insights from the study of networks to the art of networking and making connections. In every chapter, Burkus writes on one aspect of networking and provide strong empirical evidence.

Although some anecdotal evidence suffers from survivorship bias and the story extends longer than is needed, they are interesting to read, nonetheless. Most importantly, Burkus outlines actionable steps that one can take to apply the ideas from the book. These steps can be used as a guiding framework whilst navigating one’s networking journey. 

Burkus ends the book with the key message that every human being is already embedded within networks of relationships. Utilising these networks for our benefits require us to learn the tools to navigate through them. If every person is the average of his five friends, then the friends of that friends are his future. 

Click here to visit the Amazon book page (affiliate link), where it is available in multiple formats.

For more resources and tools, visit David Burkus‘s website.

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