How Our Networks Shape Us

How our networks shape us graphic

Why should we care?

The networks you're a part of will shape your life dramatically;

your next career opportunity;

your happiness;

your health.


Networks are all around us. It has been said that the 'Network' is the paradigm of the modern age. Yet networks have been around since things have been connected to one another – I don't really want to take a guess at when that was. Now in an increasingly hyper-connected world, the networks we are a part of have an ever increasing influence on our lives.


So, in what ways do our networks shape us?

1.) They influence the Information we are exposed to. 

There is so much information out in the world now that it is impossible to read it all. The networks that we are a part of act as filters to what we are exposed to. This manifests itself both in the obvious online fashion, in which our friends share that funny video on facebook, or in the more subtle in-person way in the form of conversational topic choice.

We all have limited time – the networks we are a part of will impact on the information that reaches you.  This is particularly important when we consider our 'information diet'. Is your information diet balanced and healthy? Or are you consuming too much of information's 'fast food' equivalent?

2.) They determine the Opportunities we are exposed to.

Closely linked to information, our networks share opportunities with us. There may be a new job opening that a friend shares with us because  they know that it's something that we have been looking for.  Alternatively a friend could let us know about a new house that is going on for sale in a area that we are interested in moving to. In a later post I will talk about how by being more transparent about what you are looking for you can increase the chances of friends opportunities that you are interested in to your attention.

It is important to remember that opportunities do not float around by themselves – they are attatched to people. People can give you access to them (The decision makers e.g. judges or recruitment staff) or they can make you aware of them (e.g. telling you about them, or by sharing them online via social media). The vast majority of opportunities I come across are a result of friends and the online groups I'm a part of.. 

3.) They influence the People we meet and associate with

People are undoubedly very important. It is important to remember that relationships are the foundations of much of life. The groups and networks we are a part of have a big impact on the people we spend time with. Not only does it impact on the people we already know, but it also impact on the people we are likely to meet. The people we know have surprising influences on us, as can be seen below.

3.) They influence the ideas we have…

'Ideas are networks' is Steven Johnson's claim in his great TED talk on 'Where good ideas come from'. Ideas and innovations often arise from exposure to other ideas. New inventions are often existing technolgies, combined in new ways. A great way to increase the ideas you have is to shape the ideas and infromation you are exposed to, and the people you spend time with. As previsouly discussed, the networks you're a part of have a significant impact on both of these. Our networks influence the ideas we have…

4.) …and what we can do with them 

If you want to get things done, your networks are also very valuable. They can enable you to access information, different skills, tools and as already highlighted, opportunities. 

The networks you are a part of influence the information and resources you can access. People are one of the most effective ways to access information. Having a conversation with someone has numerous advantages over searching the web, or reading books. For more discussion on this topic, keep an eye out for a future blog post on 'information within Networks'.

5.) They shape our AttitudeAmbitions

It's normal people to use the people around them as a bench mark of what is 'normal'. If you see people around you doing incredible things, you are able to see that it's possible. If you are in a community of friends that are all starting businesses, you are far more likely to start a business yourself. It is important to surround yourself with the people that you admire.

Attitudes are contagious. If you surround yourself with optimists, you are more likely to have a optimistic outlook on life.

6.) They influence our Happiness

Yes, even happiness is contagious. The happiness levels in the networks that you are a part of have a significant impact on your own happiness. Not only does the happiness of those you have direct contact with have an impact on your happiness, but the happiness levels of second degree connections also have a impact on you. This continues as far as 4th degree connections!

7.) Even our Health is affected by the networks we are a part of!

Obesity levels, smoking, and numerous other habits that impact on our health have been found to be strongly correlated with the people we know. It's a strange throught that you can have a positive or nagative impact on the duration and quality of your life by considering carefully who you spend time with. For more information on this topic, watch this fascinating TED talk by Nicholas Christakis on 'The hidden influence of social networks'.

To finish, an effective way of illistrating the true importance of the networks, is by looking at examples within the natural world. If you watch the video above, Nicholas Christakis talks about how the different structure of a network of carbon atoms lead to astonishing differences between graphite and diamond's physical properties. 

connections matter carbon atoms

Graphite has no bonds holding the sheets of carbon atoms together. Therefore, graphite is a soft meterial, that leaves a residue when it is rubbed against a surface – making it a great material for pencils. Diamond on the other hand, has numerous bonds, and is highly connected to other carbon attoms within the network. Diamond's superlative hardness is in stark contrast to graphite's softness. Another interesting property difference to consider is colour. Although both substances are made from the same element – carbon – graphite is an opaque metallic grey, and the diamond is transparrent.  

Another great example of how networks shape us – this time in a very literal sense – is our connectome (for a TED talk on the topic, check out Sebastian Seung's 'I am my connectome'). The way that the nurones within our brain are connected together are very important to who we are. They influence our abilities, our memories and numerous other aspects of who we are, which we are still discovering. 

So this is all very nice, but what does it actually mean to my life? The answer is simple. Be aware of the networks you are a part of. Consider who it is that you spend the most time with and whether they are having a positive impact on your life – how do they influence your happiness, ambitions, health etc?

An important acknowledgement to make is that individuals still have the ability to shape their lives, independant of the networks they are a part of. To argue otherwise would be nonsensical. However, the networks you are a part of,  have hidden influences on you and your life. They can create inertia when you try to make a positive change. For example, if you're interested in pursuing a business idea, but all of your friends prefer a corporate job with security, they are likely to consciously or unconsciously influence you to remain in a job with security. 

Alternatively, networks can build positive momentum in the direction you wish to go. They can expose you to new ideas, help you to develop them, and even offer introductions to others who can help you take it to the next level. Sticking with the example of whether to pursue a breakout entrepreneurial opportunity, a group of friends who have pursued similarly entreprenerial endeavours will likely encourage you to take action, and help you to do so. 

For more on how you can maximize the value you gain from your networks, keep an eye out for future posts on Serendipity, 'Mastermind groups', and other posts tagged with #Networks.

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