August 27, 2000 was one of the most important days of my life.
I was loving my newfound independence and soaking in my second day of orientation at NYU. Little did I know that I would meet my future wife that evening. A group of guys I was with connected with a group of girls she was with. The night unfolded from there.
I often say it was the luckiest day of my life. If we hadn’t met then, we never would have. NYU has tens of thousands of students.
However, I recently learned that the story I’ve been telling myself is wrong. How we meet the most important people in our life personally and professionally (including how I met my wife) is not random.
According to research by Brian Uzzi, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at the Kellogg School of Management and one of the world’s top network scientists, there is a common origin that most of the important relationships in our life have, and most people are completely unaware of it.
To understand the gravity of what I’ve just said, think of the most important people in your personal and professional life. What would your life be like without them? Now, imagine if you could increase the odds of meeting more people like them. Imagine the impact that those people could have on your career and life!
The Perils Of Being Too Strategic
Based on Brian’s research, here is the approach most people take consciously or unconsciously when strategically building a network:
- Identify the most important qualities they’re looking for in the people in their network (often the same qualities they already have).
- Look for others who share those qualities.
- Find those new people through people they already know.
Here’s the problem with this… You’ll very rapidly build a network of people just like you; people who speak the same slang, have had the same experiences, and even have the same skills. The problem with this is that having a diverse network is critical to success and creativity.
Secondly, the network you build will lack the dynamism of the real world. In Brian’s words, “Future challenges are unforeseeable and therefore impossible to plan for. People who self-select their network contacts too much, build weak networks that don’t adapt to new conditions very well. A weak network turns challenges into liabilities. A strong network turns challenges into opportunities.”
So, if being too strategic is bad, then what is the solution?
Studies Show How We Really Build Deep Relationships
The answer for Brian is obvious based on nearly 100 research papers he’s published over the last two decades on networks — it’s shared experiences.
Think about the 10 most important relationships in your life besides your immediate family. How did you meet them? It’s likely that you met many of them through shared experiences (college dorms, sports, collaborative teams, passion projects, etc).
But not all shared experiences are created equal…
“The clue to the types of shared experiences that are most potent lies in the formation of the famous relationship between Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. They didn’t develop their relationship over a business deal as you might expect. They developed it through a shared activity that the two men shared a deep passion for — the game of bridge. Since then, they’ve become kindred spirits and collaborated on several levels. Warren Buffett has committed more than $40 billion of his wealth to the Gates Foundation.”
Through years of research, Brian has found that the most powerful shared experiences are those where you build deep trust, get to know people at a deep level, and are exposed to a diverse array of people. He found that the three qualities that create these the most are:
Key #1: Passion
According to Brian, experiences based on people’s passions are important for two reasons:
- People (even busy people) make time for their passions.
- People like other people more when they display their passions.
“This happens for two reasons (1) Sometimes having a passion is a deeply personal and intimate aspect of a person’s essence, so expressing it to others creates sentiments of acceptance and authenticity in the person expressing their passion. (2) We like passionate people. Both the excitement and the knowledge behind the passion are contagious.”
I learned that power of passion to transform experiences while I was at NYU. At first, I selected all of my classes based on how passionate I was about the topic. However, I quickly learned that a dull professor could ruin whole areas of study for me. Instead, I started picking professors based on how passionate they were. Their passion was contagious and my whole college experience was transformed. This strategy culminated in me taking and loving a course called Baseball As A Road To God taught by President John Sexton.
Key #2: Interdependence
The second key to a meaningful shared experiences is being in situations where there is a common goal or passion that can only be satisfied jointly with other people.
In Brian’s words, “Trust is normally a slow and long process to build. However, through shared activities that require interdependence you quickly recognize, ‘I can’t do it alone’ or ‘I can’t win it’ without the other person. In short, you recognize how the other person is meaningful to you. And all lasting relationships are built on a foundation of meaningfulness.”
When I reflect back on meeting my wife, the conditions were perfect. We were each starting from scratch with our network in a completely new city. This made us much more open to meeting new people. Together, we were able to confidently embrace a new phase of life in one of the largest cities in the world.
Key #3: Competition
“Finally, in a shared activity there has to be some gradation of winning/losing or doing better/worse. Competition brings out meaningful behavior, stretches you, and reveals your top level of performance to yourself and others. In addition, it exposes your softer intrinsic qualities like confidence, resilience, and empathy. Deep down, learning someone’s essence is what we want in relationships.” As an example, in a study of Northwestern students Brian performed, he found that the majority of MBA students formed their deepest relationship on sports team, not in class.
This finding also matches classic research in social psychology, which shows that when we’re in a heightened physical state, we feel closer to people that we already have some level of connection to.
Take Action Now
Now, that you’re armed with this fundamentally unique relationship building approach, how do you apply it to your network?
The next time that you’re invited to an event with elements of passion, interdependence, and competition, realize that it’s a rare opportunity to build deep relationships. For example, in 2014, I went to a few amazing events that curate this type of environment, and they had a big impact on me; Mastermind Talks, Cadre DC, HIVE, and the Young Investor Organization’s community within the annual Milken Global Conference.
When you want to catch up with someone, don’t just meet at a cafe or in your office. Turn it into an experience. For example, Charlie Hoehn, author of Play It Away: A Workaholic’s Cure for Anxiety turns meetings into walks and even playing catch. Joey Coleman, the Chief Experience Composer of Design Symphony has created and teaches a replicable process anyone can use to turn interactions with their customers into experiences.
Want to take things a level deeper? Create your own experiences for others.
And who knows, you could meet your future spouse during a shared experience, just like I did.
It’s not just about who’s at the table. It’s about the shape of it as well.
Michael Simmons writes at MichaelDSimmons.com and is co-founder of Empact. To receive more articles like this one, visit his blog.