The No. 1 Predictor Of Career Success According To Network Science
Author’s Note: This article was written over 60 hours with love and care using the blockbuster mental model.
It has been over three years since Steve Jobs died.
Since then, books have been written and movies have been made.
Each has celebrated his legacy and aimed to share the secrets he used to build the largest company in the world; things like attention to detail, attracting world-class talent, and holding them to high standards.
We think we understand what caused his success.
We dismiss usable principles of success by labeling them as personality quirks.
What’s often missed is the paradoxical interplay of two of his seemingly opposite qualities; maniacal focus and insatiable curiosity. These weren’t just two random strengths. They may have been his most important as they helped lead to everything else.
Jobs’ curiosity fueled his passion and provided him with access to unique insights, skills, values, and world-class people who complemented his own skillset. Job’s focus brought those to bear in the world of personal electronics.
I don’t just say this as someone who has devoured practically every article, interview, and book featuring him.
I say this as someone who has interviewed many of the world’s top network scientists on a quest to understand how networks create competitive advantage in business and careers.
The Simple Variable That Explains What Really Causes Career Success
In December of 2013, I interviewed one of the world’s top network scientists, Ron Burt. During it, he shared a chart that completely flipped my understanding of success. Here is a simplified version:
The bottom line? According to multiple, peer-reviewed studies, simply being in an open network instead of a closed one is the best predictor of career success.
In the chart, the further to the right you go toward a closed network, the more you repeatedly hear the same ideas, which reaffirm what you already believe. The further left you go toward an open network, the more you’re exposed to new ideas. People to the left are significantly more successful than those to the right.
In fact, the study shows that half of the predicted difference in career success (i.e., promotion, compensation, industry recognition) is due to this one variable.
Do you ever have moments where you hear something so compelling that you need to know more, yet so crazy that you’d have to let go of some of your core beliefs in order to accept the idea?
This was one of those moments for me. Never in all of the books I had read on self-help, career success, business, or Steve Jobs had I come across this idea.
I wondered, “How is it possible that the structure of one’s network could be such a powerful predictor for career success?
How A Closed Network Impacts Your Career
To understand the power of open networks, it’s important to understand their opposite.
Most people spend their careers in closed networks; networks of people who already know each other. People often stay in the same industry, the same religion, and the same political party. In a closed network, it’s easier to get things done because you’ve built up trust, and you know all the shorthand terms and unspoken rules. It’s comfortable because the group converges on the same ways of seeing the world that confirm your own.
To understand why people spend most of their time in closed networks, consider what happens when a group of random strangers is thrown together:
David Rock, the founder of the Neuroleadership Institute, the top organization helping leaders through neuroscience research, explains the process well:
We’ve evolved to put people in our ingroup and outgroup. We put most people in our outgroup and a few people in our ingroup. It determines whether we care about others. It determines whether we support or attack them. The process is a byproduct of our evolutionary history where we lived in small groups and strangers we didn’t know well weren’t to be trusted.
By understanding this process, we can begin to understand why the world is the way it is. We understand why Democrats and Republicans can’t pass bills with obvious benefits to society. We understand why religions have gone to war over history. It helps us understand why we have bubbles, panics, and fads.