This is The Networking Number That May Really Surprise You

How many people are in your Contact list? How many people are you connected with across all your social media channels? 

Of these numbers, how many are you actively engaged with?

In 2017, I briefly met Luvvie Ajayi Jones where we were both speakers at the Black Enterprise Women of Power Summit. She was fabulous, and I started following her on Twitter immediately after her fireside chat. 

At the top of 2021, she shared on Twitter how she kicks off the year by “auditing herself, life, and relationships.” (Here’s the blog post version.) One of her tasks includes deleting contacts she hasn’t been in touch with in the last five years. 

My reaction was akin to the imagery that typically goes along with the phrase: clutching your pearls. I was shocked by both her suggestion and my reaction to it. 

I was also curious. 

So, I started doing it. It was taking a lot of time to go through the entire alphabet and I soon lost steam. But I do intend to pick up where I left off.

However, Luvvie’s exercise to proactively purge her contacts fits into our conversation about networking on many levels: 

  • For starters, it’s an invitation to sit with the (sometimes) uncomfortable reality that there’s no amount of abundance mindset thinking that can counter the fact that everyone has a cap on their time and energy.
  • In a similar vain, it can be hard to admit that we have layers of connections. Some people are in the outer layer; others in the inner layer; but a very small and select few are in the inner, inner layer – what I describe as “the cabinet” or those who are the absolute closest to you.
  • Third, it’s also a great way to explore the question: How many relationships does it take to have a thriving life and business? Whatever may be your definition of “thriving.” 

Like I said last week, being a great networker requires a lot of intentional choices and actions

Two of which include categorizing your relationships (family, friends, professional, and acquaintances) and then prioritizing them. For some this is easy-peasy; for others it may feel like “clutching pearls.” 

Yet, here’s a hard truth: We cannot possibly have thousands of people in our inner and “cabinet” layers of connections. 

This applies whether you consider yourself an extrovert, ambivert, or introvert. 

So, if research says you cannot maintain, at the same time, thousands of relationships relatively well, how many can you? Glad you asked :).

Turns out there is a number! It’s called Dunbar’s number. 

According to the anthropologist Robin Dunbar, 150 is the maximum number of relationships you and I can sustainably maintain. This includes family, friends, professional, and acquaintances.

I first learned of this number from Michelle Warner when I attended one of her Networking That Pays training. Talk about being gobsmacked.  

Because, in a world where metrics matter and the perception is the higher they are the better, 150 seems awfully low. (As an example: I am grateful for the several thousands followers I have on each of my social media channels and on my email list. But you’d be surprised how totally “unimpressive” my numbers are for some literary agents.) 

Emotions & Networking

If 150 is the magic number, how do you aggregate that across four relationship dimensions? 

Your goals and priorities, of course. But, and here comes another pearl clutching moment for some, this means taking stock of what’s important to you — right now. 

Are you prioritizing your and your family’s needs and wants? Are you prioritizing your professional needs and wants? Or, are you prioritizing your social needs and wants?

As Michelle would ask, “On a scale of 1-4, with 4 being most important, how would you rank the aforementioned types of relationships?” When I used the calculator she designed, based on how I ranked “Friends,” the number of friendships I can stably maintain is 25. 

Yes, my inner, inner cabinet is definitely a handful of people. But in my world where the line between business and friends often bleeds, 25 is a shockingly low number.  

It is said that networking is a numbers game. And Dunbar’s number may have surprised you as it did me. But what I also find surprising is this:

When you choose to be intentional about your networking process, it can be really emotional, too.  

I find it’s emotional in ways that go beyond “putting yourself out there” and making the first move or the ask. It’s emotional in a way that has nothing to do with the other person (or people).

It’s emotional in ways that have everything to do with what’s going on within YOU! Because it prompts you to take stock of where you are right now (what do you want and need), where do you want to be, why is that important to you, and what will it take to close the gap. 

Weighing these factors has the potential of making you feel uncomfortable for a whole host of reasons. 

Perhaps the unease is because you are making some choices about what category of relationships to prioritize, as well as “who” to prioritize within them. These choices may cause you to feel self-conscious. Likewise, you may end up ruffling some feathers. In my eyes, this is rational. 

Or, maybe the unease isn’t rational. Like me feeling “bad” about deleting people from my contact list – even though I’ve not been in touch with them in the last five years or so. Not rational, yet very real.

Yes, networking is a numbers game. But who is included in that number and how you forge and maintain those relationships is not something you can easily quantify. This requires discernment, which, in turn, requires emotional intelligence.

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