Knowing people

“Six degrees of separation” is a concept that is now well embedded in our minds. Living, as we do, in an increasingly networked world, it is a banal fact that everyone is connected to everyone via a surprisingly small number of waypoints.

But after watching people like Tiago Forte, Venkatesh Rao and others act and engage on Twitter, I began to wonder if the idea of “six degrees of separation” applies to knowledge acquisition.

In Antifragile, Nassim Taleb makes a point about optionality:

“…the option is a substitute for knowledge—actually I don’t quite understand what sterile knowledge is, since it is necessarily vague and sterile. So I make the bold speculation that many things we think are derived by skill come largely from options, but well-used options, much like Thales’ situation—and much like nature—rather than from what we claim to be understanding.”

According to Taleb’s formulation, I don’t need to know whether Avenue A or Avenue B result in the most profit if I retain the option to travel both.

So, with two building block—six degrees of separation and optionality—it becomes apparent why placing a strong emphasis on public engagement and stream smarts is a good idea:

If you know people, you don’t need to know stuff.

Consider the apocryphal story of Henry Ford being scorned for not understanding certain technical details involved in the production of his cars. Ford met the scorn with the observation that he doesn’t need to know those details because he pays others to know those things.

That was then, and that was also one of the world’s richest, most influential men. But now, in this networked world where everyone is connected to everyone, we can achieve the same feat.

If you are part of a network whose character tends towards activity (instead of passivity), it’s actually more effective to ask others a question than to do the research yourself. The optionality of knowing people, and the reality of the few degrees of separation that hold us apart, means that practically all knowledge is just a well-placed, well-phrased question away.

Or, as pro-Twitterer, Venkatesh Rao puts it:

“Sufficiently advanced knowledge is indistinguishable from relationships”

The caveat is that one must add value to the network in order to take it away. To get answers to your own questions, you need to provide answers to the questions of others.