When it comes to getting your life in order or going for the next promotion, you probably rely on your friends or family members for support, advice and encouragement. But as Meg Joy writes in The Defining Decade, you’re better off reaching out to an old coworker or networking acquaintance if you really want to broaden your horizons and get ahead.
Most people limit their social interactions to a handful of like-minded people, their “urban tribe” whom they depend on for rides to the airport and a shoulder to cry on after a break up. But for real progression, we need to embrace so-called weak ties “who will swiftly and dramatically change our lives for the better”.
Weak ties are the people we have met, or are connected to somehow, but do not currently know well. Maybe they are the coworkers we rarely talk with or the neighbours we only say hello to. We all have acquaintances we keep meaning to go out with but never do, and friends we lost touch with years ago.
It’s these people – old professors, employers and so on – who “will be the most transformative”, because they are dissimilar from us.
As Joy explains, we often have too much in common with our strong ties – our friends and family, for example – for them to offer us “more than sympathy”. Often our experiences are so similar that they cannot help us out of a sticky career situation or relationship issue.
And because you are likely to have the same interests and disinterests, these close ties can limit who you know and what you think.
Weak ties, on the other hand, “know things and people that we don’t know. Information and opportunity spread farther and faster through weak ties because weak ties have fewer overlapping contacts.”
We don’t assume that they think the same things we think or like the same things we like, so we’re more thoughtful when we talk to them.
“Whether we are talking about career ideas or our thoughts on love, we have to make our case more fully,” Joy writes. “In this way, weak ties promote, and sometimes even force, thoughtful growth and change.”
And, as Joy writes, embracing weak ties also makes us feel left alone. Though we think of our friends as our community, it can also be isolating to only routinely interact with a limited number of people. We start to feel disconnected from the larger world. Reaching out to an old boss for career or life advice can help the world seem more manageable.
If you’re worried that your weak ties will think it’s strange or presumptuous of you to reach out to them, rest assured that people like to be helpful. Just remember, you don’t want to waste someone’s time, particularly if they are older and more established (that is, busier) than you.
So, as Joy writes, when you’re asking for a letter of recommendation or an introduction to someone in your industry, “Make yourself interesting. Make yourself relevant. Do your homework so you know precisely what you want or need. Then, respectfully ask for it.”
And always return the favour.