Your Life is Driven by Network Effects
Revealing the Unseen Forces That Guide Your Life
by James Currier (@JamesCurrier). James is a Managing Partner at NFX, a seed-stage venture firm headquartered in San Francisco.
What city you live in. Who you date or marry. Which job you choose. What clothes you wear.
We all think we make these choices ourselves. It certainly feels like we’re in full control. But it turns out that our choices — both in our startups and in our lives — are more constrained than we think.
The unseen hand in them all is the networks that surround us and the powerful math they exert on us.
Working with network effects in our 100+ companies makes it impossible not to notice how the same mechanisms and math that create near-destiny for companies also create near-destiny for us as individuals. It’s mind-blowing once you see it.
These constraints are highly determinative of how your life will turn out, guiding us inexorably down one path or another in ways that are both quite predictable. Yet these forces are typically unnoticed.
This article outlines how we see network effects impacting nearly every aspect of your life. With that lens, it lays out a perspective on how to make the 7 most important decisions of your life. It will hopefully help you make decisions that are more true to the kind of life you want to lead.
Network Force: The Unseen Hand
Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776. In it, he envisioned markets with thousands of individuals pursuing their own independent self-interest as creating an “invisible hand” that unintentionally promoted the good of society. This “free-market model” allowed him to point out the math and mechanisms behind the emergence of large-scale social order.
Here we want to do the reverse — to use a “network model” to characterize the large scale human social orders and explain how they impact each of us with an often unseen hand.
In short, the networks of human connections in your life create a force that guides you down a path not always fully of your intention, through the mechanism of 100s of small interactions.
Further, this “network force” compounds over time. The longer your relationships, cliques, and communities persist, the more they shape your destiny.
Sociologists regard the evolution of our lives as resulting from a combination of our own choices and preference and the force of our surrounding social network structure.
Observing our own lives, and watching as 100s of founders move through their own journeys, we would go even further in the belief that it’s network forces that influence the majority of how our lives turn out. And 90% of those network forces are established in just 7 crossroads or pivotal life events.
Given the power of network forces on your life, they should be the primary consideration when making decisions at these crossroads. Although it may feel like a complex decision in the moment, they become simplified when seen primarily through the lens of joining and forming new networks and changing the network topology of your life.
The world seems chaotic. But it’s not. Underlying all this apparent complexity is some wonderfully simple math. Follow the math to your destination.
Understanding the primacy of networks will give you a superpower to see what others do not and navigate life’s big decisions more effectively.
Seeing the Math at Work in Your Life
Math underlies elements of the social sphere in ways we don’t always see. In spooky ways.
Here are a few examples of how math drives the large and small scale social orders we experience every day. After that, we’ll get to how the network force should guide your decision making in the 7 crossroads of your life.
Zipf’s Law and You
Did you know the frequency of the words you use are determined by an underlying mathematical pattern?
What’s stranger is that same mathematical pattern seems to determine the sizes of cities within a country, income distributions of people within an economy, income distribution among companies, how much traffic goes to different websites on the Internet, how often last names are used in a society, the number of phone calls people receive, the number of people who die in wars.
This mathematical pattern is a power law known as Zipf’s Law. It was first noticed as a principle of language. About 100 years ago, physicists and linguists discovered that the second most commonly used word in English is used one half as much as the most used word. The third most used word is used one third as much as the most used word, so forth down through all the words in a given language.
This law turns out to hold not just in languages, but in many other cases. The world looks complex or chaotic on the surface, particularly in social matters and perhaps your own life, but underlying what we see are simple rules of math.
The underlying mechanism for Zipf’s law is not yet agreed on but the main hypothesis is that it’s an outgrowth of the Principle of Least Effort. In short, systems that survive and operate at steady state optimize for efficiency. When they do, things tend to look like Zipf distributions.
Related to your life, an even stranger implication of Zipf’s Law is that unconscious network forces will act on anyone or any company that gets to be an outlier in one or more of these distributions. Bringing you back in line — or bringing another person or company back in line to make room for your new numbers — will happen without any conscious or intentional force at play.
This is a bit spooky. It means that the number of inhabitants of NYC constrains and influences the number of inhabitants of LA, Seattle, Chatanooga and all American cities in some unseen way because they are all part of the network of US cities. Even though we are each making what feel like independent decisions about where to live, it seems that we are part of this network unconsciously influencing people to keep American cities on the Zipf distribution line. I am one of those people being pushed around. And so are you.
That also implies that my income is somehow influenced by other incomes that surround me as my income fits into the Zipf Law curve. And my country’s GDP is influenced by other countries’ GDPs.
If math is underlying all this, what else in my life is being affected by the larger social order?
Your Body and Cities Have Predictable Mathematical Patterns
Systemic efficiency also drives other mathematical laws that govern how our lives look. Another example is the ¾ scaling law that shows up everywhere in the world as pointed out by Geoffrey West in his 2017 book Scale. The cells and energy systems of living things scale up in predictable patterns. A mammal that is 200% the size of another will only consume 150% of the energy. That’s because our cells and capillaries have evolved to be the most efficient fractal network transport system for conveying energy and nutrients to a 3D body. Those same underlying mechanisms drive the math of when you’ll die and why you stop growing taller.
This biological fractal network is very similar to the fractal network of a city that has evolved to provide energy and transportation to keep the city alive. The empirically measured numbers for cities are 17/20 scaling, still pretty remarkable energy gains for the city based on its network effect, and still consistent across nearly all cities.
It’s remarkable to think that city planners could actively try to violate the 17/20 scaling rule for cities, and the network would actively work against them in unseen ways to pull the city back to 17/20.
How do nodes on a human network work?
Nodes, which in this case are people, exchange a host of things. Sometimes consciously if I pay you from my bank account, sometimes unconsciously like when you overhear me at dinner telling someone about how I coach founders during walks and you decide to try it with your employees.
The things they exchange are… well… nearly everything. The most important ones for our discussions here are ideas, capital, connections, jobs, status, aspirations, language, requests, standards, expectations, affirmation, criticism, belonging, and physical space.
The nodes exchange more of these things when the friction is low due to physical proximity, interaction frequency, tribal trust, similarity, etc. The nodes also exchange more when the benefit is high due to resources gain, status gain, tribal trust gain, etc.
In Networks, The Rich Nodes Get Richer
Most things that happen in society are multi-turn and repetitive. These are called preferential attachment processes which happen when something (such as money, status, fame, punishment) is distributed based on how much is already possessed. Most social processes are preferential attachment. For example, if two Founders each tweet out the same great idea at the same time, the one with more status will be given credit for the idea.
What’s fascinating is that this is because of math. Nodes that are “ahead” get picked more often by the other nodes because they are ahead and thus offer the nodes choosing them less friction and more benefit. When this gets repeated many times, it systematically directs more resources to the nodes that already have relatively more.
This pattern has been so prevalent for so long, and has been so annoying to the majority of people, who, by definition are not in the lead, that it’s mentioned in one form or another at least five times in the Bible, most famously in Matthew: “For to everyone who has will more be given…” Now called Matthew Effect.
The math behind why dinner parties behave the way they do
If you want to have one conversation at a dinner table, 6 people is about the right number. Maybe 8, max. While that seems like a social decision you made yourself, the reasons behind it are mathematical. That number is similar for all of us because it’s based on how many possible two-way conversations (links) can exist between people (nodes) in a group. The formula (derived from Scale, pg. 317), it turns out, is:
N * (N-1) / 2
Where N is the number of people. If you have a group of six people, that’s 6 * 5 / 2 = 15 potential two-way conversations, which means that to focus on one conversation, you have to suppress 14 others. That’s possible without being too rude, but if you add just one more person to the group, the formula becomes 7 * 6 / 2 = 21. That’s an additional 6 conversations to suppress. That stretches our social skills to control.
The larger point here is that when groups get larger, it’s an exponential change, not a linear one, and that affects social experience you have, how you interact, and ultimately how you feel. Whether it’s a dinner party, the size of your extended family, school, college, workplace, or a city, with networks, the math behind them puts impactful forces on how we all behave.
How Networks Form
In theory, the people who inhabit each “layer” of your life’s network map could be anyone. All humanity is, after all, connected. As Stanley Milgram famously showed as far back as 1967, there are a maximum of 6 degrees of separation between you and any other person in the US. With the advent of the internet and global social networks like Facebook, that number may be even lower — as low as three and a half degrees according to a study conducted by Facebook in 2016.
But in practice, relationships don’t form at random. 5 conditions contribute to the depth and speed at which they form:
- A context for frequent, repeated interaction with a new group of people (e.g. a new school, job, church, club, dorm, living situation, etc.).
- A high degree of overlap between relationships in the new group.
- A transition period where people are open to changing or evolving their identity.
- A high density of people in geographic and network proximity.
- Go through something hard and perhaps fear-inducing together.
So you can see why high school, college and your first job are such important life stages. All 5 of these conditions are present.
What Does Your Network Want from You?
You are not just the recipient of value from your network. The people and nodes in your network want and expect an exchange from you, too. They want you to validate them and support them. You are in a dialogue with the network force. As Obi-Wan says about The Force in the original Star Wars movie:
Kenobi: A Jedi can feel the Force flowing through him.
Luke Skywalker: You mean it controls your actions?
Kenobi: Partially, but it also obeys your commands.
The network force is similar. You don’t always see it, but it is exerting itself on you.
It wants something from you. Your network force proactively guides you down a path. So be careful which sub-networks and people you add into your network.
When you start to see that dialogue between you and your network, the push-pull, you see it everywhere. The chaos of the world diminishes a bit and becomes more understandable and predictable. And you understand more why things are the way they are and why they stay that way. Hopefully, it will also give you insights as to where you can push to change things that should be changed, not just about you, but about your company, your city, and your world.
Your Life’s Crossroads
Let’s look with new “network force” eyes at the crossroads each of us face. This list of crossroads is intuitive, but few of us explicitly understand the math that guides our choices and the gravitational force our networks exert on our lives.
And further, like asteroids colliding in space to form larger asteroids, at each crossroads we pick up greater “network mass”, increasing our network gravity and exponentially heightening the energy costs of changing course.
The conclusion is that the compounding, nonlinear math of networks means that they should be the primary consideration in our big life decisions.
The Network Topology of Your Life
There are three levels of networks you’re a part of.
Within the “People Network”, you are a member of many networks. Your family, your high school classmates, college alumni, company alumni, the people from an activity you do like a soccer team or volunteering, the people who work in your building, the people who live on your street, the people at the gym you go to.
The intensity of each of the links between you and the other nodes in your networks, it turns out, will follow Dunbar’s law, which appears to be based on the fundamental structure of your brain. We each tend to have 5 people who are like family, 15 intimates, 50 acquaintances, and 150 total familiars that we can interact with on a regular basis. Beyond these approximate limits, humans don’t do so well.
You are a node in each of the networks to which you belong. The other nodes – people – give you your ideas, your words and phrases, your assumptions, your desires, your fears and your beliefs. They give you your belonging, your affection, your shame, your fear, and your hopes.
To make an analogy, imagine that the things that these nodes all give you show up on your life dashboard as you navigate life. They appear with a lot of numbers. Probabilities, rewards, costs, frictions. You make your decisions reading this dashboard and what the network presents to you there. You have agency and free will in making your decisions. You look at the math of each decision and make the best decision you can at every point.
The mathematically obvious path will feel like “the right decision.” But note that what even shows up on your life dashboard is put there by your network. And the math associated with each option — the rewards and frictions and probabilities — are determined by your unique network. And your network is the result of the network decisions you made during the few crossroads moments in your life.
What that means is that the little decisions you make daily, the ones you fret over, are orders of magnitude less important than the crossroads decisions you make. This is true because those decisions have been placed in front of you by your network and are mostly a function of your network, and they don’t typically bridge you into whole new networks and new ideas and options.
Crossroad #1 – What Family You’re Born Into
You don’t get to choose this one. For better or worse, your family is the fundamental layer of your network topology. Seeing your family through the lens of the network forces model can reveal the hidden depth of that influence.
Network clusters influence us in proportion to how frequently we interact with them, how early we adopt them, how strong and reciprocal our ties are with the other members, how much they are reinforced by overlapping shared connections, and how long we expect them to last.
In all of these measures, few of our other networks in life can rival family:
- Since you usually live in the same house with your family for a large part of your life, geographical proximity makes frequency of interaction extremely high and friction to interact low.
- Your individual relationship with one family member — usually a strong tie — is reinforced by all the other family members you share in common.
- We expect family relationships to persist throughout our entire lives, an expectation formalized in most human cultures as a deeply-embedded social norm. There’s a long “shadow of the future” with our family members. We know they’ll always be there, so we’re willing to invest and sacrifice for our family relationships more than for non-family.
- Family ties have higher bandwidth than others because we see labels like “mother” or “son” as identity-defining. Family relationships straddle the line between who you know and who you are.
- Future relationships outside the family network, e.g. friends, dates, etc., will be impacted and reinforced by your family. The closer you get to someone, the more they interact with your family, and the more likely it becomes that they develop their own ties with your family members.
- All of the powerful factors above are superimposed by, and reinforced with, our biological drive to connect with others who share our genes.
Now that we can see how families are uniquely influential relative to other networks, it’s clearer why we so often adopt our cosmological, religious views, linguistic dialect, political leanings, dietary preferences, and worldviews from them — despite such things not being genetically heritable.
You go through life thinking such things are innately “you”. But you didn’t adopt your identity in a vacuum. Had you been raised by a different family, you would likely be a very different “you” — Your religion, linguistics, political orientation, favorite foods, worldview would probably be very different despite such things not being genetically heritable.
Our family network impacts what networks we are exposed to and which ones we are constrained from. Family nodes have preferences, and push links to other networks on us in the form of introductions to schools, places to live, jobs, and spouses. There are also prohibitions on fraternizing with the “wrong” nodes in certain networks.
Your family is a low-friction, high-impact network. Because of that underlying math, when making life decisions most people will choose the options that most align with their core family network. Be aware of this if you want to be more conscious in directing where your life path will lead.
Your family network is the one you don’t get to choose, and in that sense, it’s not fair. But it’s not destiny. Think of it as another network force — albeit a very powerful one — that puts data on your dashboard.
Crossroad #2 – High School Network
High school networks are especially important because they are influential when we are forming our identities and worldviews as young adults. High school networks are also correlated with academic achievement, work habits, and even college admission — defining access to future networks and building a vibrant life of your choosing.
Like family, where you go to high school isn’t usually a choice. But if you do have this option still ahead of you, or if you have children and can choose for them, don’t underestimate its importance.
High schools are typically the first peer networks we join that are large enough to have a diverse array of subgroups — better known as high school cliques. As such, they present us with our first significant network-based decision: who to associate with in high school.
The importance high-schoolers place on “popularity” — their status in the social hierarchy of their peers — shows that we intuitively understand the importance of networks even at an early age. In seeking status or popularity, we are, in part, looking to maximize our options in terms of which cliques we can elect to join or form. For most teenagers, that optionality matters deeply.
How does status work? Why does status give you options? Because status lights up the network. It’s a pure shot of preferential attachment we mentioned earlier. Sure, nodes on the network with money attract more money. Nodes with more access attract more access. Nodes with more attention attract more attention. But nodes with status attract all of the above. Nodes of all types want to associate with high-status nodes because it will improve their own status.
Winning status becomes the singular focus of life for many teens, and not a few adults persist in that goal. Adult parents of a high school teen may see it as melodramatic or irrational how much their kids care about their status, reputation, and friends at that stage in life — especially compared with more “important” things like academic accomplishment.
But from the vantage point of a teenager, social obsession is quite rational. Teens intuitively understand that their high school destiny depends on their network of friends. And though it’s easy to dismiss teenage behavior as irrational and hormonally driven, there are serious consequences to the networks we join early in life.
For example, academic achievement in high school has been shown to be directly influenced by friends. “High-achieving students strive for high-achieving friends, low-achievers strive for low-achieving friends … [and] the differences in achievement between the high and low achievers will be exacerbated by the friends they make.
According to one 2011 Harvard study, all kinds of traits, from body weight to happiness, are heavily influenced by network clusters. Throughout your life, your “clique” helps define you. The same study also found that the presence of friends in class has a positive and significant effect on test scores.
Moreover, as your first peer-based network you form after you’ve come of age, your high school friends have a particular influence on your lifelong identity — from your tastes in music, to your work ethic, your fashion sense, and your life aspirations — which is only rivaled by family, and in some cases even surpasses it.
It’s not just during high school that high school networks matter. Those who go to college and build a career in the same cosmopolitan area as their high school are likely to retain some parts of their teenage cliques throughout their lifetime, usually forming a core part of their network.
All this network force taken into account, which high school you go to matters a lot. Imagine the impact of moving a kid from, for instance, Taiwan or Spain to the US, or vice versa, for high school. How much of a difference would that make to the trajectory of a person? The networks presented to them? The ideas, the sports, the foods, the language, the friends, etc. Imagine moving from Arkansas to, for instance, Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire for high school. Intuitively, we know this will make a difference. But we see the mechanics of that difference more clearly when we see it through the lens of network forces.
When navigating the question of which high school to attend or — if you don’t have a choice — who to make friends with as a high school student (or which kinds of people to encourage your kids to befriend if you’re a parent, although good luck with getting them to listen), ask yourself the following questions:
- How big is the high school? The bigger the high school, the bigger the alumni network, which may influence your ability to choose future networks like college, spouse, and jobs.
- How diverse is the school so you can find nodes and sub-networks that fit you best? With more options, there is a higher probability you can find a high achieving sub-network in an area you can be ambitious and high achieving.
- How strong is the affinity of school graduates? Higher affinity indicates stronger network links between nodes in the network, that the network is more valuable to the graduates. How much do they brag that they went to that high school? How often do they come back for reunions? How passionate are they about the brand of the school? Do they use it as a strong identity peg or are they indifferent? Those would indicate stronger network links between nodes in the network.
- How important is academic success to high-status students in this high school? The more that popularity / status positively correlates with academic success, the more that short-term social incentives will be aligned with achievements that will serve you or your kids in the long term.
Parents and ambitious teens often mistake high school for a competition to get into a good college, either through academic achievement or sports. By focusing on the sound and fury of competing for grades and spots on the varsity team, they miss the higher importance of the network dynamics at stake. In high school, putting yourself in a position to form a large number of strong relationships with the right network nodes can make all the difference, not to “get ahead” but to create a vibrant, amazing life of your choosing.
Crossroad #3 – College Network
You should choose your college based on its network of students and the geographic network they inhabit more than course of study or sports teams. If you choose the right people to be around in college, they will open up ideas, relationships, jobs, aspirations, attitudes and resources that fit with you and a virtuous cycle will be set in motion. Your network will ask you to be your best self and live your best life, like a trainer at the gym. In this way, your college network will have an exponential impact on your life.
College networks have many characteristics that make them powerful
- Geographic density creates frequent interactions between the nodes, giving network bonds a chance to form and strengthen.
- There’s a long duration of network formation. 4 years is a long time. A lot happens in 4 years.
- A closed, selective network. This is powerful for three reasons. A) Your reputation matters. People are more likely to have heard about you via a third party, and treat you differently according to your reputation. B) If you meet another student, the chances of them knowing someone you know is much higher than someone you meet outside of the closed network. There is a high degree of network overlap between you and other students, and as network theory predicts, shared connections between two people vastly heighten the chances of them forming a strong bond. C) The likelihood of repeat interaction between students is very high.
- Like with family, these networks cross from who you know to who you are. Identity formation takes place at this age and are thus likely to last longer.
- When you choose a college, you are also choosing a geography. People tend to end up working and living in the same geographical proximity as their college, keeping them close to their college friends.
- People tend to end up working in the same industries as the people in their college network.
- It’s considered a social norm that you should build and value your network in college, so others are more receptive to building new and strong bonds.
- Given your biological age, it’s a good time to look for a partner. The network upshot of this is that many people will find their spouse at college, or at least find someone who they think likely to be their spouse in the future, which impacts big life decisions such as where to live after college. As we’ll see, this is actually a huge decision — and letting your dating life dictate where you live isn’t usually a wise choice.
- College teaches you the idea that you will know these people the rest of your life, so like family, there is a powerful shadow of the future that makes the bonds stronger and more numerous.
- All of the above elements reinforce each other.
To see what this means in practice, consider the following scenario:
As a freshman, you meet someone in class. Let’s call that person Sally. You and Sally have some things in common, and you get along fine. If you were asked to rate your affinity for Sally, it would be a 6 out of 10. Since you share a class together, you’ll see each other maybe twice a week for at least six months.
You’ll interact regularly and frequently — and even after this semester, there’s a high likelihood that you’ll see Sally around campus, share friends with her who might invite you both to the same parties or get-togethers, or participate in the same extracurricular activities. All of this is the result of you being members of the same closed network and sharing the same geographical and institutional circumstances.
Now suppose that, the same day when you first meet Sally, after class you go to a party off campus where you meet Bob. Bob doesn’t go to your school, doesn’t have any shared connections with you, and doesn’t live near you. But he does have a lot in common with you, and you spend all night at the party hanging out because you share so many interests and have so much chemistry. If you were asked to rate your affinity with Bob, it would be a 10 out of 10.
4 years later when you graduate, which friendship is most likely to have survived? How much does the math of network formation matter compared to your own preferences and agency?
Mutual affinity isn’t the only thing that matters in choosing friends. It’s not even the biggest factor. Network force swamps other factors. Taking it into account, the model for relationship development doesn’t just include mutual affinity. Instead, it looks more like this:
Likelihood of forming a relationship = Mutual affinity * frequency of interaction * duration of interaction * geographical proximity * network proximity * number of shared connections * etc…
Bob might be a 10 in that first factor of mutual affinity, but in all the others he’s a 1.
Sally, on the other hand, may be a 6/10 in terms of personal affinity, but she’s a 10/10 in all the other ways, each of which serves as a multiplier on the likelihood of you interacting and developing a lasting relationship with her.
Another way of looking at it is that the friction of hanging out with Sally is much lower than hanging out with Bob — it takes 10X less effort to hang out with Sally. So over time, the math of inhabiting a shared network — the network gravity — makes it hundreds of times more likely to become lasting friends with her than with Bob.
This is a rough illustration of the mathematical power of networks in shaping behavior. As we see, networks impose real constraints on how you make decisions, not only in who you are likely to end up befriending, but the career opportunities, dating choices, beliefs, and information that you’ll end up sticking with.
Network proximity makes some options more appealing than they would be in a vacuum, while network distance can impose a high friction on other options — like being friends with Bob, or choosing to adopt a belief system, a fashion sense, or industry job too different from those of the other people in your proximal network.
So if you are choosing between colleges, or know someone who is, consider the following questions:
- Where do most of the alumni of this college end up living? When you choose a college you are also choosing a regional network. If you go to school in California, for example, your friends and job offers will end up being mostly in that region. I don’t recruit at my alma mater Princeton anymore because it’s so low probability to pull a Princeton grad out of the NYC-DC-Boston orbit. I tried for four years, and each of the people I was recruiting did the math on their own life dashboards, saw the numbers put there by their networks, felt the network gravity, and each made the rational decision to stay on the East Coast. One candidate stayed in NYC to move into an apartment with their college friends and work at Goldman Sachs who recruited heavily on campus, one hour from their office in Manhattan (low friction due to geographic network). Another moved back to Boston to be near to their girlfriend who was finishing up at Brown, and their parents in the suburbs. They each “really wanted” to join a startup, but network gravity and network math were too much.
- Now think about how the math continues to cascade through the network. Princeton hopes that I continue to be an active recruiting node on the network, providing the students with great employment options. But my cost/reward math doesn’t work. The denominator is zero. So Princeton lost a recruiter node in their network for now. Further, now those student nodes back on campus don’t hear from me. I and people like me don’t add our numbers to their life dashboards saying “work for a startup in SF.” So the math for other ideas like Goldman Sachs and McKinsey gets stronger over the years. The strong get stronger. Again, preferential attachment in the network. Students look at the network math on their life dashboards and they choose the mathematically correct choice.
- What kind of career or industry do alumni of this college typically work in? Here’s an example of how this works. My 23-year-old nephew went to Trinity College in Connecticut. Most of the students from that college end up working in finance in NYC or Boston. Guess what my nephew now does? He works in finance in Boston. He followed the least resistance path, leading him to the highest paying, highest status outcome similar to his network. Is his choice of job about his own unique abilities and interests? No. It’s the math of the networks. He made the correct choice based on the options presented on his life dashboard by his networks.
- Do you relate to the other students naturally? Will they relate to you? Do the students represent the type of aspirations, lifestyle, and interests you want for yourself? There’s no point in joining a network where you won’t actually bond with the other nodes, no matter how prestigious that network is.
- How big is the college? The bigger the college, the bigger the alumni network. The bigger the alumni network, the more weak ties you have, which are great for career, marriage, and a host of other life attributes. Harvard Business School has figured this out and has classes of 900 compared to Stanford and MIT Sloan of 400.
- How strong is the affinity between graduates? Like with high school, how much do alumni brag they went to that college? How much do they come back for reunions? How passionate are they about the brand of the school? Do they use it as a strong identity marker or are they indifferent?
- Is it clear what it says about the graduates that they went to that college? A clear, strong brand lights up other networks because external nodes know what to expect from you if you’re a member.
In addition to that, and I suspect this will be controversial, you should probably de-emphasize questions like:
- Where does the college rank in US News & World Report college prestige list that dates back to 1981
- Are the classes amazing?
- Is there a sports team I’m keen to play on?
- Is there a particular professor I want to work with or a particular major I want to pursue? Only 27% of college grads end up with a job closely related to their major.
College is possibly best seen as a place for network formation, and creating the network topology you want. The network you join will lead you to a geography, a type of work, certain ideas about life, and a group of dating/marriage options that will all have a big influence on your life. All that network force will be pushing on you to then take the mathematically obvious path from there, one which will feel like the “right decision”.
Crossroad #4 – First Job
The professional relationships you form during your first job are the seed of your professional network which influences the arc of your career — from how you think about work, to how you’re known, to the geography where you have advantaged job access for a long time.
In working life, you see your coworkers every day of the week for 8 or more hours per day. The frequency of interaction with coworkers, at this stage in life, may be even higher than what you have with your family.
Prevailing wisdom says you should pick your first job based on the highest income, or the one that you’re most passionate about, or the skills you’ll learn, or where the day to day will be the most energizing for you.
All of this is flat wrong. In your first job, go work with people whose career path you want to emulate. Optimize for network.
The early professional relationships you form will have a bigger influence on your skillset, your lifetime earning potential, and the mastery of your craft than the particulars of your job description, the income, the company perks, or the brand name on your resume.
In almost every field — from theoretical physics to growth marketing — top performers were mentored, influenced by, or otherwise connected to other top performers.
There are a couple of reasons for this. First, as we saw in the high school section, high achievement is communicable. Surround yourselves with high achievers, and probability is on your side, you will become like them.
Second, innovation is contagious. If your first job is at a place that’s a breeding ground of innovation, the chances are a lot higher that you’ll come across some really good ideas — especially if you want to start a company one day.
The PayPal Mafia was no coincidence. Network clusters are capable of producing multiple future billionaires. There is no upper price, in terms of effort, difference in income, or even cost of living, that can even close to compare to the upside of being part of a network of high achievers in your first or second or third job.
So, when making a decision about where you want to work, instead of asking:
- Will this give me the work I want to do daily?
- Is this the best offer I got in terms of income?
- Does this company look good on my resume?
- Does this company let me take as much vacation as I want, have free catered lunches, and a fancy office?
Do yourself a favor and ignore all of it. Focus on these questions instead:
- Is this job in the right city? The city I want to live in long term?
- Will I like and respect my co-workers? Will they like and respect me?
- Do I want to be like my bosses someday?
- Do my co-workers career aspirations match mine?
- Am I going to be working with the best?
- Is there a strong culture and camaraderie?
- Will I have opportunities to prove myself to others at my company to build my network bonds?
- Are employees proud of their company and their brand? Do they enthusiastically recruit? Do they seek each other out when outside of work? This indicates strong network bonds are forming.
- Are there politics in the office that could threaten the building of strong network bonds?
- Lastly, because top performers tend to congregate in rising companies, if it’s a startup, ask if it has strong potential defensibility against competitors, especially network effects, and whether it has the 9 habits of world-class startups.
Crossroad #5 – Marriage/Choosing a Life Partner
Marriage, or choosing a life partner, is one of the most important decisions you make in life. It could be the source of your greatest joy and/or your greatest suffering at a very personal level. In terms of the network model, it’s powerful because you are choosing someone else’s full network to add to yours. This person will also share the very center of your network hierarchy with you.
In many cases, this person will produce your children with you. Not only will parenthood be a focus of a lot of your life’s energies, but in addition, your children’s full networks will be added to yours for the rest of your life.
Children are shaped by how you nurture them as parents, and as we’ve seen earlier in the discussion of family, they are shaped by the networks brought to them by their parents. Your children are brought into, and partially inherit, the networks of both parents.
For 60% of people, how you meet their significant other is determined mostly by who you know and who you get introduced to, although that’s changing with the “digital people network” layer beginning to break down geographic networks and other closed networks. In 2017, 39% of all US marriages originated by meeting online.
“It is one of the most profound changes in life in the US” and the best example of what we’ve been hoping the Internet might do for a long time — moving from unchosen network forces constraining options to a global, digital network empowering your own preferences and agency.
I ran the largest self-assessment testing and matchmaking company in the world. We had 150M users and 10s of personality tests written by my staff of 5 PhDs to help people connect better. We also ran a matchmaking site with 30 million users that took advantage of those tests to match people. What my team told me at the time was that the most successful marriages were ones where 1) the two people were the most similar, and 2) they had shared network connections.
What this means is that when you’re dating someone, you’re not just dating them. You’re dating their networks — their friends, family, and colleagues. And vice versa.
Compatibility between two people in terms of their individual characteristics is sometimes much less important than the compatibility between their networks. This is one possible reason why there is a surprisingly low divorce rate amongst arranged matches made solely on the basis of compatibility between kin networks.
Although online dating is gaining ground, meeting through friends is still the most common way to meet someone. Further, what the statistics don’t yet show is how many of the 39% who met online had strong affinity networks already in place before meeting online, but just needed to shortcut the longer, in person, process with the tech layer to find each other.
So how do you find a spouse?
This is where Mark Granovetter’s famous work on The Strength of Weak Ties becomes relevant:
“The stronger the tie between [two individuals], the larger the proportion of individuals to whom they will both be tied.” – Mark Granovetter
Given this, everyone in your “inner circle” probably already knows each other. The closest friendships you have, because of the structure of social network clusters, will have close to a 100% degree of network overlap with you.
So what this means is that your closest friends are usually poor nodes in your network to pursue romantic interests. There are two possibilities if you go this route:
- (More likely) Your closest friends won’t be able to introduce you to anyone new.
- (More unlikely) Your close friends introduce you to a close friend of theirs that you didn’t previously know. You end up dating, and in the high percentage of cases where things don’t work out, the blowback from the ruined relationship wreaks havoc in your network cluster, forcing your friends to choose.
That’s not to say that it’s impossible for people to become friends and then later become romantically involved. But for the purposes of meeting someone new, friends of the inner circle of your network map are not the place to start.
This is where your acquaintances — the weak ties at the outer layer of your network map — become vital. As we know from the work of Duncan Watts and Steven Strogatz, acquaintances serve as vital “bridges” between tightly knit network clusters. For people looking to be exposed to new dating prospects, job leads, ideas, beliefs, or lifestyles that differ from what they’re used to, there’s no better way to do it than through an acquaintance.
Smart questions to ask yourself when you’re single and looking to meet someone:
- Which acquaintance is most likely to know a lot of people that you’re compatible with? Not all people have equally large networks, and some people you know may be “hubs” that have a large number of connections. If you can find someone like this, they are usually quite helpful in meeting new people. “Hubs” frequently have weak ties to a lot of different cliques, groups, and sub-networks. They’re usually happy to make introductions.
- Do you get along with their friends? Do your friends get along with them? If you’re serious about the relationship, consider whether you’d be willing to bring those people into your life. If so, it’s a lot more likely that your relationship will last in the long haul.
- Do you get along with their family? The importance of in-laws isn’t to be underestimated. It’s easy to dismiss this in a culture that preaches that true love is all you need, but network theory tells us differently. Your in-laws are the core network of the person you’ll be closest with in life. What may seem like minor issues at first can grow into powerful problems over the long course of a lifetime.
- Are you in the same geographic network? When a couple is geographically challenged, it puts a real strain on their relationship.
- Could there be blowback if it doesn’t work out? Everyone knows why it’s a bad idea to date a coworker or someone else who you might see on a regular basis if you break up. Network forces are why. The same applies if you share a lot of mutual friends — especially if you ever get divorced. You put your friends in a position where they have to choose, and you risk losing some of the relationships you’ve built up over a lifetime. Don’t underestimate this risk.
Crossroad #6 – Where You Live
Where to live powerfully impacts the relationships and direction of your life, in ways you may not even realize. When coming out of college, this is even more important to your life than your choice of job.
As mentioned previously, physical proximity is predictive of network formation. Cities, from a network perspective, are like scaled-up colleges. Network density, frequency, similarity, and status accumulation all drive urban network formation. Cities do a great job of helping us form our networks because they are networks themselves, both physical and social.
Where you live largely determines who you know. Who you know largely determines the richness of your life and your access to wealth and information. Your network is a form of wealth. It brings you friends, career opportunities, or a spouse.
Committing to a geography and developing a network increases your access to all the experiences and resources you might want.
As the great Saar Gur — Partner at CRV and investor in Doordash, Classpass, Patreon, Bird and many other well-known companies — said to me recently, “Staying in the SF Bay Area after business school was the most impactful decision I’ve ever made. Everything else was noise.”
It’s certainly the most common life advice I give to people. Pick your city first. Everything flows from that. Your job, spouse, friends, income, and other opportunities flow from that core choice. The reason is network forces.
It’s important to note that your “choice” of city may be greatly influenced by the network force from the earlier networks you’ve accumulated. Take note of that and steel yourself to have the courage to make what sociologists call a “major move” if you decide that move makes sense. (Hint: it most likely does).
Making a clean break to move to the place that would facilitate your best life is hard. Network forces keep you on your path. The network wants something from you. Your boyfriend, a parent, high school friends, college friends, your weekend sports team, your roommate, your comfortable job.
This is true for those of us lucky enough to have a lot of resources and equally true for those with far fewer resources. In this article in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell reported on research done by sociologist Corina Graif on people at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum who were forced to undertake a “major move” out of New Orleans by hurricane Katrina to growing cities like Houston.
Interestingly, their standard of living ended up rising significantly just as a consequence of the move — even though they were forced to do it by disastrous circumstances. It turned out to be a positive move, but they would never have undertaken it if they hadn’t been forced to by a natural disaster. As Gladwell points out, it gave “them a chance to rethink what they do.” But more importantly, it gave them a new network-geographic context. New network forces. New resources, ideas, jobs, and commonly accepted standards.
It could be that this dependence on location-based networks is changing thanks to the internet and telecommunications in general, since it’s now easier to maintain and form networks in spite of geographical distance. But we’re just 25 years into the digital world, and that process will take 50-75 more years to play out.
In the startup industry, digital tools like Signal and The Company Brief open up access to knowledge and communication formerly only available to people living in Silicon Valley for many years.
Some people are able to use the internet to find, build, and maintain human networks — usually around a niche or interest like gaming, cars, or fashion. For most, the Internet simply reinforces or super-imposes upon the networks they build in real life. For everyone who doesn’t do most of their networking online, physical location matters.
The network math of cities underlies their attractiveness, and helps explain why the planet is rapidly urbanizing. In short, because of a city’s network properties, as it gets bigger, it gives its citizens 15% more of what they want in terms of income, ideas, speed, and stimulation, and it costs 15% less to give it to them in the form of roads, electricity, water, gas lines, gas stations and safety services. That 30% gap is significant and is driven by a city’s network effects.
The higher rate of social interactions in a city has important consequences for your ongoing network topology. Larger cities mean more access to network clusters, leading to a greater diversity of talent, ideas, and backgrounds versus smaller cities. It also means meeting new people will be easier, but forging strong bonds could possibly be harder.
With all this in mind, when deciding where to live, here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Are the people in this city like me? Each city has a vibe that may or may not fit with you. Each city calls ambitious people to improve in some area. NYC calls you to earn more money. Seattle and Portland call you to recreate more. DC calls you to be more connected. SF calls you to create more, invent more. It’s the garage where the crazy uncle is inventing crazy inventions. If you can find a city that drives you in the way you want to be driven, then you’re in luck and you should settle down and build your network and your life with your people. If one city doesn’t call to you, find a sub-network of people that call to you in a city you don’t mind.
- How long can you see yourself staying there? The networks you build when living somewhere atrophy when you move somewhere else. Your networks are a form of wealth, and every time you move, you’re resetting your bank account.
- How important is your career to you? Because GDP scales nonlinearly with population size in cities, your career earnings will grow faster in a city than elsewhere. More importantly, the opportunity to build out your professional network and meet top talent in your industry will be higher in bigger cities.
- How much do you enjoy a fast pace of life? In a big city, everything moves faster. People walk faster, opportunities arise more frequently, you meet new people and encounter new ideas more often. It’s all an inevitable consequence of greater network size and density.
- How much do you enjoy or value meeting new people? If you are looking to build out the middle and outer layers of your network hierarchy, cities are a great place to do it.
- Are the core parts of your network topology filled in? Do you have close relationships that you’re happy with and can rely on? If not, a smaller city may be a better place for you than a big one.
Crossroad #7 – Reassessments
At any point, you can choose to reassess the course you’re on.
The network gravity has been building up since your birth and gets stronger over time. Each network adding and integrating with the others, changing the math on your dashboard until it’s near destiny. But you can decide to ignore that network math and forcibly make a change. This actually gets easier for older people who are done with their “shoulds.” When they’ve raised their kids, built their careers, earned some money. That’s why you see mid-life crises. The network force has been guiding someone for their whole lives, and then it stops exerting so much pressure and the person can consider their own innate interests and agency.
The most lasting and effective way to change your life is to change who you’re surrounded by. Since networks so powerfully shape who we are and what we do, the best way to change ourselves is to change our networks.
This is a big limitation at the way we look at self-development and self-transformation. We think we can just roll out of bed one day, make a few new year’s resolutions, and become a new person. But this approach ignores the biggest part in the equation of who you are and what defines your life — the network force.
This isn’t to absolve us of responsibility for our actions and to shift the blame to others. Rather, it’s to underline the fact that we are powerfully constrained by our network contexts. So the smartest use of energy for those of us looking to make a change can often be to carefully reassess the networks we’re a part of, and find ways to join new ones that are better suited to the life path we want to be on.
On the flip side, if life is going well and you’re happy, understand how important networks are. Double down on your relationships. Cherish the people in your life and be aware of the value of their relationships and the networks you’re a part of.
Our networks are our most valuable resource. They are the way our lives express themselves. Those networks are made up of all the people you care about, the people you, inspire, move, and help to live their best lives.