We recently came across an article in Wired Magazine by Peter Thiel (of Paypal fame and early investor in Facebook) with some very interesting conclusions.
Briefly, he mentions how the best and brightest of our society tend to shoot for elite universities like Harvard, where they then proceed to interact with people more or less just like them and, as the years go by, they tend to reinforce their own principles and become more and more similar. This may seem both obvious and good. We agree that it is obvious. Most of us associate with people similar to ourselves, and studies have been performed to show that most people do the same around the world.
The second point, that it is good for the best and brightest to keep hanging out with the best and brightest, however, might not be so good. Thiel points to a study of entrepreneurs, which showed that those who associated with the most varied groups of people (in different clubs, associations and different activities) tended to be the most innovative. He then ties this back into Harvard, where he says the lack of interaction with diverse people (not necessarily diversity of race or gender, but of interests, goals, etc.) will limit the potential of these best and brightest. He ends with: “Perhaps Bill Gates knew what he was doing when he dropped out of Harvard.”
This is both interesting and (we believe) very true. The only problem is his study was done among entrepreneurs. Someone who is looking for a job may argue that it makes sense for entrepreneurs, who run their own businesses, to try to seek out as many different people as possible. While if someone wants to be a banker she need not do so. Much better to associate with just the banking world. Those of you who read The Tipping Point, however, might remember Malcolm Gladwell’s point about “weak ties”.
These so-called “weak ties” are more useful to you than your strong ties (or close friends). Gladwell states:
Your friends, after all, occupy the same world that you do. They might work with you, or live near you, and go to the same churches, schools, or parties. How much, then, would they know that you wouldn’t know? Your acquaintances, on the other hand, by definition occupy a very different world than you. They are much more likely to know something that you don’t.
So say you are looking for a job in Banking. Well, your friends in Harvard either already know that, or are competing for the same jobs. And if an opening becomes available, chances are you’ll hear it from the same sources as your friends, which brings you no advantage. If, however, you have connections all over town and in various different clubs and industries, the chances that one of them knows an opportunity that your friends in school have missed are much greater.
This works when searching for jobs, business opportunities, general information, or good hotel recommendations in Istanbul. It turns out Peter Thiel’s argument is right on the money, but in an even broader sense than he imagined. Ignore it at your peril.