You have all heard the expression: “It is not just what you know, but who you know that matters.” Well, your friends don’t know much. Okay, that is a little harsh. More precisely, your friends tend to know the same things you do. From an information acquisition perspective, they are redundant.
This tends to be the natural state of affairs because most people befriend people who are just like them. This makes life comfortable, but dull. If you want to have an exciting, challenging, highly successful life, you need to get out of your comfort zone and actively search out people who are different from you. You want to meet people who can expand your knowledge base, introduce you to new experiences, and broaden your perspective. Be purposeful about this.
I have friends who study the structure of human interactions in the workplace and other settings. It is called social network analysis. They look at who knows who, who people go to when they need information or help, and how the patterns of people’s interactions differ. It turns out that people with different types of social networks perform differently at work. In other words, who you know and who and what they know really does matter.
For example, managers with more dispersed networks–people who know more people from different parts of the organization as well as many people outside the organization get promoted more quickly and earn more money than managers who tend to only associate with people in their work group. And building a broad network with many casual friends who you only interact with once in a while tends to be more valuable than focusing on building a network with more frequent interactions involving a close set of friends.
Why? Most innovation is stealing. New ideas are scarce, but many old ideas can be applied in new settings. Lots of innovation comes from taking something that was tried successfully in one setting and adapting it to another, or from combining existing things in new ways. The more people you know in different settings, the more likely you are to discover something you can apply in your work. And the broader your social network, the more people who will see your genius in action and spread the word to others that you are a rising star. The result: promotion and higher pay.
So stop hanging out just with people from your high school or people who have the same major you do, or like the same music you do, and find some people who are as different from you as possible and get to know them. I would especially recommend that you get to know some international students–they have very different experiences and perspectives, many come from emerging markets and given globalization are people you are likely to be doing business with some day. Developing those contacts now could pay off big later.
Paul Jarley, Ph.D., is the dean of the UCF College of Business Administration. He blogs every week at http://www.bus.ucf.edu/dean. The following post appeared on August 29, 2012. Follow him on Twitter @pauljarley.