I remember a few years ago, I was a bit obsessed with having as many connections as possible in my professional network. To me, it was less about making a valuable connection and more about having as many connections as possible. I had learned from a “social media pro” that we needed to have a certain number of connections in order to be taken seriously on these networks. Because of this belief, I would scour said social networks and browse through the list of suggestions for any mutual contacts and send them a request to connect. My goal then was to have 500+ contacts. I was so focused on “building my network” that I lost sight of the bigger picture, which was to make a human connection with the few true connections I had. I remember at the time believing that your network was your net worth. I cringed a bit as I typed that last sentence because I find myself on the opposite end of that spectrum now, but more on that later.
Often times, we accept others’ “invites” to connect with them out of obligation. For instance, I get weekly invites to connect on these networks –– offering me help to improve business performance by one way or another, without making any connection to begin with. Not to diss them, but I’d rather connect with someone who has similar values as I do and/or is doing something meaningful and significant in the world. These are the ones who are truly living a life of service.
Other times, we might feel obligated to read every post/update/tweet from those we “follow” on these services. When we don’t feel obligated, we consume their updates arbitrarily and perhaps mindlessly as well.
I remember going through the news feed for one of these networks not too long ago and reading some of the updates from those in my network, many of whom I didn’t know/remember. It didn’t take long for me to realize most of the updates were of little interest to me. This made me question if we should stay “connected” at all. For the time being, I decided to keep most of my contacts, but unfollowed everyone in my network to prevent them showing up in my news feed. Then, I went through my contacts and followed a handful of people who I knew and/or whose work I found meaningful.
In another instance, I was speaking to a family friend earlier this month. I didn’t have his phone number (nor did he have mine, but he got mine through one of our mutual contacts) and I asked if his number had changed. He said he had 8,000+ contacts in his phone book and had never changed his number. Anyway, later that evening I thought about the reality of having that many contacts.
We all have contacts in our phone book and social network accounts. Some of us even brag or take pride in having X number of “friends” or “connections” based on the language these services use. But the question is, how well do we know any/all of these people –– much less have a personal history with them? Do you even remember the last time you spoke to them? Is it even possible to stay in touch with 500 people, let alone 5000+? Who are we kidding?! This begs the question about the size of our social and professional circles.
In the 90s, British anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggested that we can maintain stable social relationships with about 150 people, give or take. These are not just names with faces online, but people and relationships we have a personal history with. Other researchers have claimed that we can form and maintain stable relationships with no more than 300 people. Regardless of what that number is, one thing is for sure –– these numbers are in stark contrast to the number of people most of us are connected with, online and/or offline. Instead of having under 300 people in our core circle, we are exposed to several times more people within social networks.
Author Seth Godin reminds us that everyone has ten friends, fifty colleagues, and a hundred acquaintances. While we may know way more than 300 people right now, the question is, how well do we know them? I’d wager that to even know that many people deeply (never mind 10 times that) would be rather difficult, dare I say, impossible even.
The reality is some people will be with us in our lives for a short while before we/they part ways for any number of reasons. Chances are that only a handful of people will stay with us throughout our lives. These are the types of long-term relationships we need to cultivate.
Personally, I believe we can either have many trivial relationships in our lives or we can cultivate a few meaningful ones. While both of these types of relationships require the same amount of effort, I’m sure you’ll agree we are better off with sustaining a few deep relationships. This harkens back to the idea of less but better, which is a profound philosophy that goes beyond relationships and applies to all aspects of our lives.
We need to first figure out who we want to stay in touch with. Let’s not forget that who we spend the most time with has a tremendous impact on our lives in how we think, behave, and act. I’m paraphrasing a Jim Rohn quote, where he said we are the average of five people we spend the most time with.
We need to be mindful of who we let into our lives. Focus on the quality of relationships over the quantity of people. That means relying on the relational and not the transactional nature of relationships that many authors and/or apps condition you to focus on.
Develop relationships slowly over time, but don’t be afraid to abandon them quickly. This is not unlike how it takes years to build one’s trust/reputation with others, but it only takes a moment to lose it all (based on poor actions). Note that I’m using the word “relationships” in a broad sense here.
One way of knowing when to leave relationships is when you find yourself trying to change the other person to be more like you. This isn’t to say there is something wrong with that person, but it might signal a difference in values. I’ve abandoned relationships in the past, which although somewhat painful at the time, seemed like the right thing to do. Just because we have known people in our past, that is not reason enough to spend time with them in the present, much less the future, if your values don’t align. Sometimes, we need to cast away old friends/colleagues because they are inadvertently preventing us from growing.
Then there are times when others move on in their lives and we wonder why they don’t ever call us? You see, we often learn things the hard way. I remember calling a couple of my school friends over a period of a few months, who I thought were my “friends”, only for them to return my call out of a sense of requirement. Returning a call out of necessity isn’t the same as initiating a conversation and investing in a relationship. It didn’t take me long to realize that I was the one calling them, never the other way around. I realized this after watching an episode of Seinfeld and I simply stopped calling.
It just so happens that most of the people I keep in touch with happen to be much older than me. Should I call them friends, mentors, or what? In order to avoid all of this unnecessary thinking, I stopped categorizing or labeling relationships in my life. To me, it simply boils down to keeping in touch with someone (assuming the feeling is mutual, obviously) or not. I’ve found this makes it simple and effective for me to keep in touch with those who matter to me (and I to them) without over-thinking.
This isn’t to say keeping in touch with someone is a one-time static choice. Far from it because relationships may evolve with time for a variety of reasons. Just because I happen to keep in touch with someone now (or they with me) is no guarantee that it will continue to be the case in the future. And that’s okay.
Here is the process for figuring out who to stay in touch with. Go through the contacts on your computer. Find the ones you would most want to stay connected. You could tag them as “Dunbar” (keeping in mind the notion of maintaining meaningful relationships with no more than 150 people) or you could put them in a group/smart group to keep track of them. Remove the ones you don’t remember and/or are uninterested in staying connected to. Once you take care of those two extremes, there are contacts where you are not sure if you want to keep or remove them. When in doubt, keep those contacts. You can always remove them later, if need be.
Once we know who we want to stay in touch with, it’s a matter of setting it in motion. We can either set this up manually using a combination of contacts and calendar, or use a task manager, or an Excel sheet, or an app that reminds you at appropriate times (based on how you set up) when to get in touch with others and to keep track of what you talked about.
Mind you, the process of who you want to stay in touch with doesn’t have to be perfect from day one. The point is you can get started right away without over-thinking. For instance, if you last spoke to one of your contacts today, then you can set up a recurring reminder of reaching out to them every X weeks or months, let’s say. Of course, this doesn’t preclude that they might get in touch with you in the interim, in which case you can update the reminder in your system to reflect that.
Let’s not forget the depth of our connection is more important than the frequency. This is one instance where intensity comes before consistency, but you need both.
We can keep in touch with others using email, phone call, video chat, or an in-person meet. Apart from using phone calls as my preferred way of communication (because it doesn’t involve looking at a screen and I can walk while I talk), I write a monthly newsletter to keep in touch with people. While I might talk to some of them in a given month, having a newsletter ensures that we keep in touch –– even if we don’t end up talking in a month for whatever reason. I’ve found it a good way to stay connected particularly during this pandemic. Apart from keeping in touch, I use it to share links with people in my network, which otherwise I would share on an ad hoc basis with certain people. Now I get to share that with everyone on my list.
I wrote earlier about my preferred way of meeting new people. While some call it “networking”, I call it doing what interests you.
Life is all about the people we meet and the things we do with them. We can either have trivial relationships with the many or deep and meaningful relationships with the few. While both strategies require the same effort, it’s ultimately up to us what we choose. Once we know who we want to keep in touch with (which is ongoing), we set the process in motion. It is not enough that we keep in touch with others simply because we want to. If others don’t reciprocate, then it won’t work. Sustaining meaningful relationships is a two-way street.