What is a network, anyway?

When I was growing up, my dad wasn’t one to push me or give advice, unless it was his weekly reminder that he didn’t want to see me having babies until after I graduated from college.  I can only remember him giving me advice about college twice in my life.  The first time was in the first grade, when I brought home my first report card.  He looked at it and said, “Wow, good job!  Hey, maybe you should go to Stanford.  It’s a good school and it’s close to home. ” (Apparently this piece of advice really stuck with me.)

The second time was in high school, around sophomore year.  It went like this.

“Hey, maybe you should apply to USC.  I heard they have a good network.”

“What’s a network?”

“Ehhhh, I don’t know.  But they have a good one.”

That piece of advice also stuck with me.  In that moment, I may not have understood what a network was, but I did understand this: A good network is something you want to have.

But what exactly is a good network?

Wikipedia defines a “social network” as “a social structure made up of individuals (or organizations) called “nodes”, which are tied (connected) by one or more specific types of interdependency” (source)

That last word is a key part of what a network is: interdependency.  I think that some people are averse to networking because they think it’s all about what you can get out of relationships with people.  But developing a good network is building those interdependent links, or links in which both you and the other individual have something to exchange.

Let’s go back to the USC example, and alumni networks in general.  The reason why my university’s alumni network is so strong, is because we all have a stake in our network’s reputation.  Some alumni I’ve reached out to may help me out of the goodness of their hearts, but their other motive is that  if they help other alums become more successful, they improve the aggregate reputation of our alumni network and increase the value of being a part of that network.

Even in the most altruistic-seeming relationships, there is an exchange taking place.  I have mentored and coached a number of people.  I have given them advice, guidance, resources, and connections.  But they have given me something as well.  They have given me the satisfaction of feeling helpful, which makes me feel good.  In some cases, they also give me friendship, inspiration, and support.

A good network is one where you have numerous relationships in which the interdependency is strong enough, or the potential exchange of value is high enough, such that people will want to help you and have the means to help you.