Six Degrees of Separation

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While living in Santiago, Chile, I received a small box in the mail from my friend Keith Atkinson, who lived in Los Angeles, California. Inside the box was a man’s wedding ring. Following up on the package he had sent, Keith called me and explained that a Los Angeles based import company had found the ring in a fruit container that had come from Santiago, Chile. The company thought that maybe Keith could help locate the owner. Hence, Keith sent me the ring to see if I would have any success.

After thinking about it, I asked a couple of my office assistants to drive out to the farm area of Santiago and ask if any of the workers had lost a ring while packing fruit. Come to find out, one had. My assistants asked the worker what his name was and the date of his marriage. The name and date he gave matched the name and date etched inside of the ring.

What are the odds of an agricultural import company in Los Angeles contacting someone in the same city, who turns around and contacts someone in Santiago Chile, who contacts someone else in Santiago, who then contacts a farm worker who just happens to be the person who lost the ring? Highly, highly unlikely.

And yet, the experience happened just as I have described. Is there a rational explanation for such a rare occurrence? Perhaps.

Interesting Research

Scientists and mathematicians have discovered that most people are just a few contacts away from connecting with people with whom they would like to communicate, but can’t, because they lack the critical information to do so.

In some interesting experiments, it was found that on average it takes about six contacts to find almost anyone, no matter where they are in the world, especially if one of the contacts you make is a personal friend of yours. This phenomena is called Six Degrees of Separation.

Using my own experience with the wedding ring as an example, let’s see how Six Degrees of Separation works:

The Los Angeles based import company (first contact) talked to Keith in Los Angeles (second contact); who talked to me in Chile (third contact); who talked with his assistants also in Chile (fourth contact); who talked with the farm worker (fifth contact) in Santiago and returned his ring.

If you count the farm worker as a contact, it took only five contacts stretching half way around the world to reach the desired person to return the wedding ring. Pretty much on target with what the research says.

Fascinated

I became so fascinated with Six Degrees of Separation, I began reviewing my own career history to see if this idea had worked in a business context. For example, I counted the number of contacts I made when I decided to leave the teaching profession and start a management consulting firm.

According to my count, I made seven contacts with people I personally knew to inform them of my intentions, and to ask them to be on the lookout for anyone who needed a management consultant such as myself. About two months after I had made these contacts, the very first person I had contacted ended up offering me my first management consulting contract. He in turn contacted his friend, who contacted another friend, who also offered me a contract. For the first year of my consulting, I supported my family with the money I earned from those two contracts.

In this example, there was one series of seven contacts (those that I personally made), and a second series of three contacts made by one of my seven contacts. The average of those two series of contacts is five, close to the average of six contacts discovered in the Six Degrees of Separation research.

The irony of this episode is, that at the time I did this, I had no formal training in business, I was an educator who taught religion. Either I was the luckiest man in the world, or some principle was at work that I had blindly stumbled onto. I have concluded that both possibilities were probably in play, but that the second was the more powerful one of the two. I think the second one was the principle of Six Degrees Of Separation at work.

Digital Age

In a digital age, which has created the Internet, Google, and Facebook, where one is able to contact anyone anywhere in the world with the stroke of the keyboard, I believe that using Six Degrees of Separation as a strategy to accomplish goals is a prudent and profound course of action.

For me, it is a powerful way of functioning in the here and now. I like the idea that good, sound research has been conducted on this subject. More importantly, I am happy that I understand how it works as a result of personally experiencing it. After all, I know only what I experience. What I have experienced is that Six Degrees of Separation connects people in order to gets things accomplished.