Build your network with greedy search

Posted on 29 January 2017 by Joseph

This may be a mild form of apophenia, but any time I see a recommendation or idea several times within a short period of time, I take note. Recently, I've been listening to a lot of podcasts by people who are (by some metric) more successful than I am. One of the interesting themes I've picked out is the idea of intentionally building the network of people with whom you interact, with the goal of surrounding yourself with people who can inspire and teach you. I am a big believer in the value of networking, and I try to follow up and stay in touch with people I think bring value to my life, but I've previously taken a more passive approach, meeting people at conferences and in chance encounters.

The theme I've noticed among high achievers is that they not only see the value of networking, but they actively and intentionally build their networks. Instead of waiting to meet someone interesting, they apply systems to meet these people sooner and follow up with them to build their relationships. By building out their networks in this way (and actively pruning them), they wind up with relationships and interactions that help them achieve their goals, whatever they might be.

Obviously, seeking out specific people who are high achievers or innovators in the area of your goals is a direct way to do this. However, I propose (and am seeking to implement) a second approach as well: greedily look for people who are inspiring among your existing network, regardless of why they are inspiring. Ask your existing network three simple questions:

  1. Who is the most interesting or inspiring person you know?
  2. Why are they interesting or inspiring?
  3. Can you introduce me to this person?

If you think of the directed approach of connecting with high performers in the area of your goals as optimizing your network, this approach provides a complementary exploration component. As I've learned from my studies in reinforcement learning, striking this balance between optimization and exploration is key to any endeavor for which we do not have perfect information; building our networks to enrich our lives certainly falls in that category. Another analogy in my own life is my efforts to read books and papers outside of computing and software. These books and papers often inspire cross-domain ideas that produce much better results in the original problems I was seeking to solve. Likewise, interacting with interesting and inspiring people, regardless of where their success lies, broadens our view of the world and enriches us in ways that single-topic interaction cannot.

I challenge you, and myself, to get out and ask someone in your network for an introduction to the most interesting person they know. Have a coffee or beer with that person and talk to them about their lives, their habits, and what they're passionate about. Offer to help this person in some way if you can. Build out your network to be both deep and broad, and surround yourself with interesting, inspiring people.

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