Hang out with all the crowds: Improve your social capital

Last week, Reggie Nelson’s story was reported as one of dream financial success from a council-estate background, thanks to his unusual plan to knock on doors in rich neighbourhoods to ask for the secrets to the residents’ success. It worked: he was given work experience with an investment management company, followed up by several more internships, and now works in investment management at the age of 22.


But how realistic is this for others to emulate? Not very; Nelson’s achievement in this scenario came from its surprise. Imagine the frustration of householders if there were constant knocks on the door to ask for wealth tips. But that doesn’t mean you can’t enter other people’s spaces and learn from them, you just need to be a bit more careful about how you do it.


Research has shown that networking, and having a wide pool of contacts, is a big factor of success. Steve Jobs’s achievements have even been attributed to his social capital, by which we mean the level of outside experiences and influences that someone is exposed to and can use. Someone with poor social capital may only have a few friends, who are all party to the same income, socio-geographical factors, job type and outlook. Someone with great social capital, on the other hand, will have a wide ranging network of people on all levels of seniority and in different kinds of work, able and willing to share opinions, advice and assistance on a variety of topics. Even in online study courses such as those you get on EdX, Yukselturk and Bulut (2007) found that “Successful students were eager to interact with their peers and instructors, with the help of communication tools”.


The key isn’t necessarily being in the ‘right’ crowd – it’s having links with every crowd. Having a bunch of weak ties (those you aren’t necessarily close to; let’s call them acquaintances) is more useful than a small group of strong ties (those few best friends you see all the time, who probably look and think like you do) when it comes to social progression, including that of careers; this is a theory posited by the sociologist Mark Granovetter in the 1970s. If you’ve seen the film Moneyball, it’s based on a similar idea – that a large collection of average people, if positioned correctly, can do better than just a few very good performers.


How can you improve your own network, then, and start gathering those weak ties? Here are a few things you can try.


  1. Remember people’s names. We all meet loads of people every week. Consider everyone as important; you never know what could happen from a tiny connection. But you won’t have made a connection until you make an impression, and remembering someone’s name is a great way to do that.
  2. Go to an event. Really, any event will do, but if it’s something you’re interested in, all the better. Take a friend if you want; if you don’t, though, you’ve got better scope for introducing yourself to other people. Find someone who’s standing on their own, and start a conversation with a smile and something simple like ‘Have you been to these events before?’ or ‘Is this an area you work in, or are you just interested?’. To find suitable events or workshops, try Meetup, Eventbrite, your local community, your industry body, or your nearby university’s events pages. Try something you’ve never thought about before, and speak to people who don’t look like you.
  3. Follow up. If you do meet someone interesting, or a group, find a way to stay connected after that one encounter. Look for them on LinkedIn, Facebook (this is better for pages and groups – unless someone specifically says “Add me on Facebook”, it can feel a bit too imposing to put in a friend request after just one meeting), Twitter, or their own website. If you had a really interesting conversation, send them an email to let them know you enjoyed it or to follow up with a question. If you didn’t meet anyone you want to connect with, send a message to the organiser to thank them instead.
  4. Have a party. If you have a reason to celebrate anyway – a birthday, for example – arrange a gathering, and ask your friends to each bring someone you’ve never met before. This is a good one if you tend to be shy. If you don’t want to go out to meet people, bring them to you instead!


However you build your contacts, remember to stay involved, whether that’s with your industry, you university course, or your online or local community.

Author: Katherine Stephen

Katherine is a qualified careers advisor and a member of the Career Development Institute. She has just begun a PhD programme to research meta-skill development in the workplace, and is a fiction editor and publisher in her spare time. You can find her on Twitter at @katobell.

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