Last time you really needed help, who did you ask? My bet is that you went to one of your strong ties—someone you know well and truly trust. Whether you’re looking for a new job or some good advice, it makes sense to go to your closest friends, family members, and colleagues. After all, those are the people you can trust to understand what you need and have your best interests at heart.
But in favoring strong ties, you might be overlooking the strength of weak ties. In a classic study, sociologist Mark Granovetter showed that people were 58% more likely to get a new job through weak ties than strong ties. How could acquaintances be more helpful than good friends?
The intuitive answer is that we have more weak than strong ties, so the odds are just higher. If you reach out to a few hundred people looking for job leads, and chances are that most of them will be weak ties. Although this might be true, the evidence supports a more powerful explanation: despite their good intentions, strong ties tend to give us redundant knowledge. Our closest contacts tend to know the same people and information as we do. Weak ties travel in different circles and learn different things, so they can offer us more efficient access to novel information. Most of us miss out on this novel information, filling our networks with people whose perspectives are too similar to our own.
“Despite their good intentions, strong ties tend to give us redundant knowledge.”
When I share this evidence, people get it, but they’re afraid to act on it. Convincing people to ask weak ties for help is like persuading a man to ask for directions. It’s uncomfortable to admit to near-strangers (and yourself) that you don’t have all the answers. Even if you overcome this barrier, you hardly know them, so why would they be willing to help you?
The good news is that there’s a way to have your cake and eat it too. There’s a third kind of contact that combines the new information that weak ties provide with the trust, comfort, and familiarity of a strong tie. It’s called a dormant tie.
Dormant ties are the people we used to know. Think about the people with whom you’ve lost touch for a few years: a childhood neighbor, a college roommate, or a colleague from your first job. In groundbreaking research, Daniel Levin, Jorge Walter, and Keith Murnighan asked hundreds of executives to seek advice on a major work project from two dormant ties. When they compared the value of these conversations to the advice from current contacts, the dormant ties were actually more useful. The executives actually received more valuable solutions, referrals, and problem-solving assistance from people they used to know than their current friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. Why?
Just like weak ties, dormant ties offer novel information: in the years since you last communicated, they’ve connected with new people and gathered new knowledge. But unlike weak ties, dormant ties also bring the benefits of strong ties. The history and shared experience makes it faster and more comfortable to reconnect, and you can count on them to care more about you than your acquaintances do.
But don’t take my word for it; ask the Kevin Bacon of Silicon Valley. His name is Adam Rifkin, and he was named Fortune’s best networker in 2011. When I interviewed Rifkin for Give and Take, he told me that instead of reaching out to strong ties or weak ties, he spends most of his time “going back to people who I haven’t talked to in a while.” Years ago, Rifkin moved to Silicon Valley in the hopes of starting his first tech company. He was seriously lacking current contacts there, and he knew he needed guidance. Rifkin remembered that five years earlier, he had exchanged a few emails with a guy in the Bay Area named Graham Spencer. Rifkin reached out to reconnect, and when they met up for coffee, Spencer offered to connect him with some venture capitalists. One of those venture capitalists funded Rifkin’s startup for $50 million.
When they first corresponded, Spencer was just a college student studying computer science. By the time they reconnected five years later, Spencer was the cofounder of a company called Excite, which he had just sold for $6.7 billion. During the time that they lost touch, he had met some extraordinary people, but several years needed to pass first.
The research shows that dormant ties surprise us in several ways. When Levin and colleagues asked executives to rank ten dormant ties in order from most to least valuable, they failed miserably. The dormant tie they expected to be the least helpful was every bit as useful as the top-ranked tie. When you haven’t seen people in three or five years, you can’t predict what novel ideas and networks they’ll be able to share. And it turns out that the older you get, the more valuable dormant ties become. Along with having more of them, they’ve had more time to meet amazing people and accomplish amazing things.
Of course, it’s easiest to reconnect with dormant ties if you’ve been generous in the past. If you have a history of self-serving behavior, your old contacts are likely to lock the door to their networks and throw away the key—if they don’t use the reconnection as a prime opportunity to punish you. If you’ve given to them without strings attached, on the other hand, they’ll greet you with open arms.
If you decide to tap into this reservoir of goodwill, not all dormant ties will be useful. Levin and colleagues interviewed one executive who groaned about the prospect of reconnecting, noting that some ties “are dormant for a reason.” But most ties don’t become dormant because of bridges burned. The vast majority of the time, we fall out of touch by accident—we’ve moved, changed jobs, or just become busy. This leaves us with hundreds of dormant ties who can provide us with the right blend of trust and novel information. As that executive who originally groaned about reactivating dormant ties put it, the “experience has been eye-opening for me. For one, it has shown me how much potential I have in my Rolodex.”
After learning about these ideas, I added a repeating reminder to my calendar: reconnect with at least one dormant tie each month. This is one of the virtues of LinkedIn: it’s easier than ever to track them down and reconnect. Instead of asking them for help, I’ve been searching for ways to help them—sometimes by sharing knowledge, in other cases by making introductions. In my experience, rekindling old connections has become a source of meaning and happiness. Like renovating an old house, it brings us the best of the old and the new. Our dormant ties can help us revitalize our favorite features of our past selves, while opening doors to new future selves.
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