What Matters More: Your Network or Skills?

I love questions like this one because they’re the kind people get upset about for no reason.

When you try to say that your network of professional friends is important to your career, you get tons of angry socially maladroit engineer-types ranting about it. Technical competence, and points on an IQ test are what matters most, and any suggestion that social fluency or relationships matter too is inherently unmeritocratic.

I’ve also heard plenty of entrepreneurs who believe that everything is outsourceable. Why bother learning something like programming or design when you can pay someone else?

Why does it have to be a dichotomy? There’s no reason they both don’t matter. Which matters more absolutely is actually irrelevant, the difference is whether more skills or more people matter more marginally to your situation.

Where Would You Get More Marginal Benefit?

Marginal benefit is a very useful concept from economics. The idea is that many activities have diminishing return. The 80/20 rule is essentially a more specific restatement of diminishing return, with the first twenty percent of opportunities generating eighty percent of the total results.

Advice giving is hard because it needs to make an assumption not just about the absolute worth of an activity, but where you are on the marginal benefit curve. What might be good advice for someone in the state of high marginal benefit may be lousy for someone further down it.

The networking/skill-development trade-off is a clear example. If you never cultivate connections and your network consists only of people you met by happenstance, there’s a good chance that each extra hour you invest in networking might benefit you more than an extra hour improving your craft.

However, the opposite is true if you’re a socialite with no job skills. Knowing a lot of people is useless if you’re useless. If you can’t do the things people will pay for, it doesn’t matter who you know.

This is why I find the debates people have over these issues silly. If you are just comparing absolute benefit, then you’re arguing an irrelevant point. The only thing that matters is where there is more marginal benefit, and that will vary case-by-case.

Skills and Relationships Form a Self-Reinforcing Cycle

The situation gets more complicated because people and skills form a positive feedback loop. The better people you know, the faster your skills can improve. The better your skills, the more important people you can meet.

Consider the first point: that a better network drives better skills. This is because many opportunities for rapid skill growth are not available to everyone. They are in limited supply, and like all opportunities, they flow through relationships.

This can have an impact in subtle ways. When I started this blog, my writing was predictably lousy. It’s nearly impossible to be a good writer when you’ve never written before, and I was no exception. The question is, how do you become a better writer?

Feedback is a big part of improving as a writer. If you don’t have feedback on what people like and don’t like about your writing, you’ll improve much more slowly. How do you get feedback? From readers. How do you get readers? From traffic. How do you get traffic? Generally from other websites linking to you. How do you get other websites to link to you? It helps to befriend people who run other websites.

In most cases it’s even more direct. My friends have helped me become a better entrepreneur, often by giving me insights into my business it would have taken years to uncover. You might have growth opportunities in your career that can only come through other people. In many cases you can’t separate your skills from relationships.

Now consider the opposite direction of causality: that better skills help you meet more important people. Here the reasoning is a little easier to follow. People like people who are high-value. If you have built valuable skills that people want, then more people will want to meet you.

The best freelancers I know for a particular skill charge exorbitant rates and turn down most their work. They’re so good that people can’t ignore them.

Cycling Introversion and Extroversion for Career Growth

The problem is that the habits and behaviors that help you build your skills are often contradictory with the ones that help build relationships. I just spent almost a week meeting people and having drinks at SxSW, but I certainly wasn’t getting any work done. Similarly, meeting with new people while hard at work is a major distraction.

I think the conflict between these two behavior types is a major reason for the debate surrounding which is better to focus on. Most people can agree that both are necessary to some extent, but integrating them into one personality can feel almost impossible.

My solution has been to cycle between modes of introversion and extroversion. By flipping between the two, I can continue to work on both parts which are important for my career, but not sabotage my progress by holding conflicting habits.

When I’m in introversion mode—I like to get work done. I prefer to meet with fewer people, work in isolation most of the day, wake up early and generally implement as fully as possible all the productivity advice I recommend on this blog.

When I’m in extroversion mode, I’m quite different. I stay out later. I drink and party. I meet people, and generally don’t worry about being too productive. In fact, “being productive” in the domain of relationships can even be detrimental, as you look like you’re trying to use people instead of building trust and connections.

These two modes often have incompatible habits, so there is a certain amount of work transitioning between them. When I’m coming off an introversion period, I sometimes have to force myself to socialize more than I want. When I’m switching back to it, I sometimes need a few weeks to readjust to the quieter pace.

How Often Should You Cycle?

For me, I feel the ratio of introverted to extroverted behaviors that maximize my benefits is around 70/30. However, this ratio itself is highly dependent on your career and where you sit along those marginal benefit curves. An engineer working at a corporate job may be closer to 90/10. A start-up entrepreneur in a marketing position may be 30/70.

The length of time in each phase depends on your schedule. When I was doing the MIT Challenge, I was in introversion mode for almost the entire year straight. Other times I’ll switch back and forth every week or month.

Cycles don’t need to be polar opposites either. This month is mostly extroverted for me, travelling to conferences, meeting people and speaking. But I’m still getting my regular work done and trying to make moderate progress on my projects.

What defines the cycle is simply a temporary shift of your priorities. When you’re in an extroverted mode, you’ll sacrifice a little productivity for your relationships. When in introverted mode, you’ll sacrifice a little of your connectedness for getting work done.

Done properly, I think cycling the introverted and extroverted behaviors we all possess is a better solution than to try to perpetually maintain balance. It also helps resolve the inner conflict many of us feel in our careers over whether we need to spend more time making connections or working hard.


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