The Net Worth of Your Network

Don’t be cynical. Invest in people.

Those are probably the only things I remember from Dean Clark’s introductory speech, back in September. My problem now is that I’m starting to become cynical about this whole people investment thing.
To me, investing in people can be understood in two different ways. The first one, the one I think Dean Clark was alluding to, has to do with giving and sharing. HBS is a wonderful place, and opportunities to make new friends abound. We have the responsibility to reach out for others, to take risks to build new relationships and to care for each other. This can be extremely valuable in moments of crisis, be they huge like September 11th or small like the disappointments caused by a tighter job market.

Now, it seems that there can be a different interpretation, and that you can substitute “what can I do for them” by “what can I get from them.” It seems to me that to optimize the value of their network, some try to develop as many superficial links as possible. Examples of the resulting behaviors proliferate. For example, people attending three or four parties the same night to maximize their time utilization, people feeling obliged to attend every single social event, people fighting to be seated close to that “cool” person, people being afraid that their time involvement in an intimate relationship may endanger their networking activities, people stopping a fascinating discussion abruptly when they discover that the person they are talking to is “only” a partner.

Finance 1 may be partly responsible for those interest-driven networking behaviors. Before, we thought we had friends. Now, we know that we have a portfolio of relationship options. Before, we thought that immediate likes and dislikes governed relationship intensity. Now, when deciding whom to invite for dinner, we must factor in the potential future utility of our guests. After all time, much more than money, is our scarcest resource, and the NPV framework seems perfectly suited to the optimization of our relationship building efforts.

Unfortunately I disagree, hence my growing cynicism. To me, life is too short to spend your time with people you don’t particularly appreciate, even if by doing so you could potentially extract some additional future economic benefits. It may be that I believe in the inhererent strength of the HBS community. It may be that I favor depth over breadth. It may be that my hurdle rate is too high. Truth is, I don’t believe in networking for networking’s sake.

Don’t misunderstand me. There is nothing wrong in developing multiple relationships as long as they are sincere. Of course we must be careful with the way we spend our time. It’s just that maximizing NPV should not be the shaping criteria of our social agendas. After all, by optimizing the economic net worth of our network, aren’t we running the risk of ending up with dozens of relationships, but without any real friends?

February 25, 2002
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