Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Being Lois Weisberg

I was just re-reading Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker essay "Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg" which he reprinted more or less verbatim in The Tipping Point in his chapter on "Connectors."

Who is Lois Weisberg? She's an elderly Jewish woman in Chicago who wields no tremendous financial power and holds no elective office. Yet she's one of the most powerful women in the city.

What makes Lois Weisberg powerful is that she knows, or seems to know, everyone in the city. As a result, she has a constantly updated pulse on what's going on. She can introduce people who might benefit from knowing each other but just don't know it yet, she can help point people in the right direction to help their business or non-profit ideas, and she has automatic "kingmaker" power just by virtue of the fact that she's so well plugged-in.

What makes someone a Connector? According to Gladwell, it's not what you might think -- Connectors aren't the grubby, glad-handing characters that remind you of the Tracey Flick character from Election. Connectors aren't even necessarily trying that hard; it's just sort of in their nature to take an interest in people.

Gladwell writes:

The secret to Roger Horchow and Lois Weisberg is, I think, that they have a kind of social equivalent of that instinct -- an innate and spontaneous and entirely involuntary affinity for people. They know everyone because -- in some deep and less than conscious way -- they can't help it.

I first read The Tipping Point almost five years ago but I still strongly remember the way the "Connectors" chapter inspired me to become a Connector myself. Here are two personal takeaways not explicitly mentioned in the chapter:

First, I think to be a Connector you MUST have some type of geographical root. I can't emphasize this enough -- people like Lois Weisberg become who they are only after years and years of living in more or less the same area. In the same essay, Gladwell starts to get at the idea of the proximity-friendship connection, but doesn't go on to connect the importance of place in the connecting career of a Lois Weisberg or a Paul Revere:

In one well-known study, two psychologists asked people living in the Dyckman public-housing project, in uptown Manhattan, about their closest friend in the project; almost ninety per cent of the friends lived in the same building, and half lived on the same floor. In general, people chose friends of similar age and race. But if the friend lived down the hall, both age and race became a lot less important. Proximity overpowered similarity.

My friend Nick and I were talking about communities the other night and about how there are some things that modern technology can't change or replace. One of these things is the emotional connection that real human interaction brings; of course, modern technology like cell phones and the Internet helps facilitiate this type of stuff but it can't replace it. So, if you're trying to build a community for yourself in Hartsdale (as one of our mutual friends is) he'd in many ways be better off focusing on Hartsdale and the area immediately surrounding it (say, that whole portion of Westchester just over the Tappan Zee) than using the Internet to meet people in southern New Jersey or central Connecticut. That's way harder to do in the first place, and then even harder over time to sustain. Plus, by spreading yourself out so thinly, you would lose the "cascading effect" that significant social capital in Hartsdale might bring you.

Another thing that's valuable is an ability to recognize the tremendous power of acquaintance. Mark Granovetter famously wrote about "The Strength of Weak Ties" in his seminal work "Finding a Job." Gladwell and Robert Putnam cited it a lot in their work, and the basic idea is that people find jobs not so much through immediate, close friends, but through looser acquaintances and friends-of-friends.

Both Gladwell and Putnam give similar explanations for Granovetter's findings -- because friends occupy similar spheres, they are likely to only know about the job opportunities, housing opportunities, etc. that you already know about. Your acquaintances, however, may have access to entirely different networks and the benefits they'd bring.

But here's a far more realist (though you can call it cynical if you want) interpretation: Eventually, familiarity really will breed contempt. The big idea here is that you are pretty much going to like everyone you meet at first. Lacking full information, you'll just fill in the gaps with positives and get along just fine. However, as you get to know someone, you will see a fuller range of both their virtues and faults. In addition, intense relationships (like siblings and close friends) can be breeding grounds for envy, jealousy, and resentment. So sometimes it may perversely be those closest to you who are not necessarily "rooting" for your success.

As a result, acquaintances may be the most likely sources of vital information (not to mention that usually, there are just more of them).

Before I conclude, let me say that I am in no way disparaging the idea of friendship or of deep, meaningful relationships with people. But I will say that for the vast majority of people you meet, the best plane for you both to co-exist on is some type of unstated but mutually understood loose acquaintanceship with few expectations or demands. A small number will become good friends, and a very small number will become very good friends. That's just the practical reality, given your varied tastes, interests, and perhaps most important, time constraints.

And that's okay


Matt said...

Here's where I'm not sure I totally agree with the Loose Acquaintance Theory: a loose acquaintance can only make you a loose connection.

Think about it this way: in today's competitive marketplace, in order to make a connection that matters -- that helps you find a job, seal a deal, whatever -- you need a person who will vouch for you. A Loose Acquaintance (L.A.) can never go all the way for you -- they just don't know you that well. L.A.'s will always "put you in touch" with someone and make a loose connection. The problem is that person who you are put in touch with has no incentive to hire you or even like you. You are just an acquaintance of the connector.

Something else I never understood about the argument: what exactly is an L.A.'s incentive to help you out? It's been my experience that the closer I get to someone, the more likely they are to help me out.

It's been my experience that the help I've gotten career-wise has been from close friends or friends of close friends -- people with a real incentive to help me. I've never been the beneficiary of an L.A. connection that's mattered much.

I love Gladwell, but this was always part of his argument that seemed to bear no relationship to my personal reality. Maybe for others it's different?

P.S. Lois Weisberg is Slate Editor Jacob Weisberg's mommy.


The New Englander said...


I'm wondering if the difference may be an industry-specific one. In a field like the creative arts (and I wouldn't know personally so I admit I'm guessing here), things are very subjective from start to finish. For someone to answer the question, "Do I want to take a chance on this person?" or "Do I want to collaborate closely with thsi person for the next ___ months?" personalities and connections could come in huge.

But Granovetter's work focused on white-collar workers in Newton, Mass, and I think the role the LAs played was minimal but still pivotal -- having someone "just put you in touch" isn't what gets you the job, but it's what gets you to the table, or helps you find the table in the first place.

Let's take this semi-hypothetical -- I'm very interested in, and very serious about, adult education as a post-active duty career -- ESL, GED, basic skills, community college teaching, etc. I also live in the Merrimack Valley. Say I mention this interest while chatting with the librarian at Pollard (city library), who knows that I live here and want to work nearby. She tells me, "My mom's best friend is in charge of hiring at Middlesex Community College, where they really need new personnel this year -- give her a call" and passes me the contact info.

In this case, the LA hasn't really expended any great personal effort or taken any great risk...the number was passed out of a basic desire to be helpful. But the woman she tells me to call ends up hiring if some sociologist from Boston ever included me in a study about how I got my job, I'd retrace the steps and say that it was the LA who gets credit for the assist -- even though her role was minimal, it was key.

But for situations like this, I can't help but come back to the idea that people found work via LAs and friends-of-friends simply because they're more plentiful. That may seem over-simplified, but just think about it -- how many really close friends does anyone have? I think I could count mine on one hand...but as for LAs and FOFs, the number could be in the dozens or even hundreds...