Dunbar Push-ups

February 12, 2009

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Seth Godin and Chris Brogan had posts this week that have an interesting overlap.

Seth’s point: in order to be the best in the world at what you do, shrink the world. You do that by defining what you do more precisely (some would say narrowly).

Chris blogged on one of my fascinations, Dunbar’s Number. That’s the “Rule of 150” that states that we can have a finite number of meaningful relationships. I’ve speculated about “Dunbar push-ups” from time to time – if most people are limited to 150, is there competitive advantage in raising that number to 155? 160? Chris is smarter about it – instead of raising the number, he suggests using it strategically. Have the *right* 150 people in your network. And, just as importantly, pick and choose people in whose networks you want to be in the top 150.

These two posts by two smart guys have a lot in common. To define yourself narrowly enough that you’re the best in the world, you have to say “no” to a lot of other things you could be. (I’m thinking about that at the moment – Egghead Marketing? How many marketers are there on the Internet? As a marketer who’s done a lot of things, how would I define myself more narrowly, the way Andy Sernovitz defined himself as the word of mouth marketing guy?)

Chris’ strategic use of Dunbar requires saying “no” too. More precisely, you have to say “no” to the idea that “the biggest network wins.” Instead, you focus on the quality of the 150 top folks in your network, as well as on being ranked as highly as possible in the networks of influential others.

Doesn’t sound anything like democratic or egalitarian. (Not a criticism of Chris’ point at all – just reflects my own struggle with zero-sum thinking). More like social Darwinism. (Happy Birthday, Charles!) What are your thoughts – how do you make your network as powerful as possible while remaining human, friendly and warm?

image by alles-schlumpf

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2 Responses to “Dunbar Push-ups”

  1. Tim Walker Says:

    You end on a very good question, Russ.

    I knew a woman who was intent on marrying someone rich. I didn’t blame her – she came from constrained circumstances in childhood and didn’t want to face more of the same in her married life. She reasoned that she was going to find a good man to marry at some point, so she might as well date only rich guys. That way, when she found Mr. Right, he’d be kind AND rich. And it worked.

    Now, that seems awfully mercenary because it’s about finding a mate. But people have been doing this in business for ages. And the reality is — at least in my experience — that it’s not *that* much harder to befriend mostly smart people, mostly well-connected people, or whatever. You just have to aim in that direction.

    You’re going to make friends, anyway. You’re going to fill up your Dunbar number at some point (though your group of 150 will surely evolve through life). You’ll be human, friendly, and warm with whichever 150 people happen to make it into that circle for you. So why not look for the ones who are kind AND rich?

  2. rsomers Says:

    Thanks Tim! Fortunately my wife didn’t have that plan, since all I had going for me was my devastatingly good looks 😉

    More seriously, IMHO there’s nothing wrong and everything right with being purposeful in networking, dating or any other pursuit. It sounds like your friend was self-aware enough to know what she wanted and honest enough to be forthright about it. “You just have to aim in that direction”…that’s a very wise statement.

    It’s worth striving for generosity of spirit in building the network. We’ve all met the guy at the networking event who stares intently at your nametag, trying to figure out if you’re useful to him, and dismisses you abruptly when he decides you’re not. Contrast that with the legendary networking skill of Bill Clinton. He seemed able to make EVERYONE feel as if they were one of his 150 – while skillfully loading his Dunbar posse with the 150 most powerful allies possible.


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