Luck or Links? Using social capital to unlock opportunities


I recently came across ‘the myth of individualism’ that Wayne Baker discusses in his book, and the more I read about it, the more sense it made. Baker advocates that success is not based on individual abilities and this idea that is ingrained in us, has a deep negative impact on understanding how the world really works. He points out that attributes such as natural talent, education, effort and intelligence, that we usually consider as individual achievements, often have a deeper social elements, without which these achievements would not be possible. Baker insists that success is social and that luck can be cultivated.

“Networking is the number 1 unwritten rule of success in business” — Sallie Krawcheck

Another article I came across suggested that job seekers should spend only a small fraction of their time applying to job postings and dedicate a major chunk of their time to networking. The author asserted that candidates who were highly referred were more likely to be interviewed and would be mostly judged on their future performance potential rather than their skills and experience.

A Google search for “reasons to network” returns a number of results citing excellent reasons to invest your time in networking. Networking is a way to satisfy the need to explore, discover, help others and help yourself. As social beings, we are wired to help others and build relationships. Well-built networks can broaden your thinking, reveal new information, entrepreneurship opportunities, leads and ideas. All these resources, and others including trust, power and support is what social capital is about. However, in order to unlock the complete potential of social capital, one first needs to shed the concept of individualism and understand that all seemingly individual attributes are often developed and shaped by social relationships. And this holds true even for the concept of ‘luck’.

“Studies show that lucky people increase their chances of being in the right place at the right time by building a ‘spiderweb structure’ of relationships that catches lots of different bits and pieces of information” — Wayne Baker

The benefits of social capital have been documented in various studies. Building social capital is a concept that needs to be approached with a mindset to help others. Studies have shown that the benefits of a rich social capital can be reaped by filling structural holes in networks. By connecting people who are linked to you, but not directly connected, and by bridging diverse parts of your social network, you create value out of your social capital and develop “luck” by building your ‘spiderweb structures’.

“Social capital is a metaphor about advantage” — Ronald Burt

While building active, well-managed networks is vital to developing a rich social capital, one of the biggest misconceptions of networking needs to be addressed here. Networking is not selling. This misconception can be traced back to the idea of individualism and the belief that we are the masters of our fates. Networking and building social capital is about developing long-term relationships and connecting with people who you are able to help and who may potentially be able to help you. A 2003 study identified the significance of social capital in bringing together many important sociological notions such as integration, social support and social cohesion. A rich social capital based on good relationships boosts performance and leads to satisfaction.

To conclude, while a top reason to invest in social capital may be the number of personal and professional advantages, building networks and relationships is a significant way to participate and make the world a better, more connected place.