[This offering appeared earlier today on more.com with the headline: “It’s not just who you know; it’s the variety of people you know that opens the door to new career possibilities.]
You can’t miss Lily’s property. It has a storybook quality: a white picket fence hugged by a row of green plants sprouting yellow small flowers that spill onto the sidewalk. On the other side, between fence and house, is a wild profusion of pink roses, clusters of lilies, and bursts of other showy flowers whose names are unknown to me. There’s a grape arbor, a gazebo, and several little sitting areas punctuated by bricks and stone pathways. If Lily’s in her garden, I rarely miss the chance to compliment her hard work. On this particular day, after a bit of small talk, I asked how much time she spends there. Her answer—on average two hours, but sometimes as many as eight—compelled me to ask, “What do you do in real life?”
At it happens (increasingly, nowadays) 48-year-old Lily had been laid off from a staff development job in the Boston public schools (“They just had no money”). She didn’t seem upset. It was almost July, she explained, and now she could spend the next several months in her garden. Besides, she already had “a promising prospect,” a job lead that came from one of her neighbors, whose garden Lily also tends. For example, a while back, Lily decided that the guy across the street, “ought to have a little garden.” So she planted one for him. In turn, when he heard about Lilly’s being laid off, he invited her over. “He just sat me down and said, ‘Don’t worry. I’m going to do everything I can to help you.’”
Lily’s story didn’t surprise me. Starting over usually involves people other than your family or close friends. Our loved ones know what we know, whereas neighbors, coworkers, former bosses, and the guy at the corner deli connect us to information and opportunity. Call them “consequential strangers.” Most of us have a wealth of these “weak ties,” as sociologists call them– unremarkable relationships that we tend to take for granted or, at best, undervalue. And no wonder: Most relationship gurus focus on partners, parents, and children. So why would you give a second thought to that pleasant conversation when Sam at the dry cleaners noticed your new hair cut or the delightful discovery that your child’s teacher is related to your dentist’s wife. And yet those are the very people who are likely to give you advice, a connection, or support when you least expect it. Lily agrees that if her neighbor hadn’t given her a job lead, someone else in her “social convoy”–the collection of people she’s amassed over the years–probably would have. “My last two jobs came through a former coworker,” she recalled, “and the one before that, through a friend of a friend.”
To whom would you turn in case of a major upheaval in your life? Job loss? Divorce? An unexpected move? Surprising research shows that most of us need not look further than our own social convoy, especially if it is comprised of intimates and consequential strangers from all walks of life. It makes you “smarter” when you interact with different kinds of people. You learn a little from one, gather another tid bit from someone else. You become flexible, knowledgeable about a lot of subjects, and better at conversational banter. As a result, you can socialize anywhere–and travel up the career ladder. Most important, each one of your casual connections is a hidden resource. And the simple exchange of sharing a problem also sends a powerful message to your psyche: You are not alone.
To find out how diverse your convoy is, take the Occupation Test to see how you compare to national averages.