Degrees of Separation, Part Two - Mojo Rider



Awhile ago, I read a fascinating essay by Malcolm Gladwell on a woman named Lois Weisberg (the essay was later included in Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point but you can find the essay on Gladwell’s website). Gladwell discusses how we all know someone like her: sociable, seems to know tons of people, seems to know everyone. We’ll get to her importance in a moment. Let’s review what this six degrees is all about.

In short, the six degrees of separation was an experiment conducted by Harvard professor of social psychology Stanley Milgram in the 1960’s. He dealt with the “small world” phenomena, wanting to answer just how are people connected, how are we bound together, and in what social webs? To do this, he conducted a chain letter type of experiment. Selecting over 100 random people in Omaha, NE who participated, the goal was for these participants to write their name on a roster sheet and give the roster sheet to someone they thought could help get it to this stockbroker in Boston, MA or at his home in Sharon, MA. And that person would do the same until the roster sheet had met its final destination. At the culmination of the experiment, Milgram could look at the roster of names and establish how closely connected someone chosen at random from one part of the country was to another person chosen at random in another part in attempting to get the letter to this person in Massachusetts. What Milgram found was that it took most participants 5 or 6 steps to get it to its final destination; hence, the popular phrase “six degrees of separation."

Gladwell further writes that a study “involving students at the University of Utah, found that if you ask someone why he is friendly with someone else he'll say that it is because they share similar attitudes. But if you actually quiz the pairs of students on their attitudes you'll find out that this is an illusion, and that what friends really tend to have in common are activities. We're friends with the people we do things with, not necessarily with the people we resemble. We don't seek out friends; we simply associate with the people who occupy the same physical places that we do.”

But the question is still, “How did these people in Nebraska get their letters to Boston?”

Gladwell states that the answer is in the degrees of separation itself, something in that chain. Milgram had found in his experiment that 24 of the letters made it to the broker’s home, but 16 of them were given to the broker by one person. The rest of the letters made it to the broker’s business office, in which the majority arrived through two other persons. Moreover, Gladwell writes that not all degrees of separation are equal and that it does not follow that everyone is linked to everyone else through six degrees; rather, it is that a select number of people are linked to everyone else through smaller steps and that most of us are linked to the world through these select people. And the importance of people like Lois Weisberg is not that she knows everyone or knows lots of people, but that she socializes in many different worlds. Gladwell recounts that Weisberg was connected to people in some twenty different worlds, ranging from politics, to lawyers, to actors, to writers, etc., having the ability to move through different social cultures.

By now, you are thinking, “Mojo, what the hell are you babbling about? Why should we care about a Lois Weisberg?”

Fair enough, so here’s where I’m trying to link it all together. Kobukson made an eloquent plea that the road to empowerment for Asian males, individually and collectively, begins with our selves, that we should be pooling our resources and helping each other out.

We can’t change our circumstances if we don’t even get in the game. We should care about a Lois Weisberg type because this is how powerful connections are made, she is the conduit, or as Gladwell calls it, the “connector”. Who is your Lois Weisberg? Who is your conduit? Going back to part one, it very well could be that my distant cousin Tom is one of those connectors. I’ll have to probe some more.

But this isn’t about cold, calculated networking and putting people’s names in your rolodex. People don’t go out of their way to help you if they don’t like you. But this “connector” person might be what some of our groups are missing. This road to empowerment starts with building connections and networking and a “connector” type might be the most valuable person in your network. We need to find someone like that who can put us in touch with people in the film industry so we can get our movie made, or the literary world, politics---whatever; we need access to places where we’ve been shut out. If we have to do it on our own, we can make our voices loud enough so that eventually we are heard by the mainstream, we can start to control more of our images and change the attitudes about us in popular culture. Like James has mentioned, this blog can be about the exchange of ideas, advice, networking, and finding some self respect.

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