The Far-Reaching Effects of Our Personal Networks

“You cannot connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.” – Steve Jobs

Last year, the New York Times published an opinion piece by the very smart and provocative Tim Urban, How Covid Stole Our Time and How We Can Get It Back

“We think a lot about those black lines: the roads not taken, the opportunities missed, the ones that got away. But most of us greatly underestimate the size of the lush green tree of possibilities that lie ahead of us.

Impacts of your decisions

“We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men.” – Herman Melville

I’ve thought a lot about that simple diagram and the impact our decisions can have on our work and in our lives, impacting not only our own life paths (and levels of work/life harmony) but impact the people and teams around us.

Years ago, when I was in the Windows division at Microsoft, my team examined and assessed the scope and impact of our decisions that we made about our products and services. Studying emails and chats long before the analytics Microsoft Delve and now Viva Insights, we did a detailed yet still rudimentary assessment of how many people and different groups would be affected by the proposals and decisions we made.

After going through the cascades of people and managers and leaders that we needed to talk to, influence, and convince, we found that on average a simple decision might impact at its core a few dozen or more people and as many teams – on average, around 30 people from different teams. But over time, considering Windows was the underpinning support for many products and services at Microsoft, the decisions could ultimately have an impact on hundreds of people and groups in various divisions at the company… and further, on thousands upon thousands of companies in our ecosystem, and millions and millions of our customers around the world.

Concentric circles of engagement

I’ve often referred to these connections initially as concentric circles of engagement (with apologies to the circles of trust or Silicon Valley’s venerable and amusing “Conjoined Triangle of Success”), a play on the spheres of influence and leveraging what could best be described as an archery target (complete with bullseye at the centre) with ever extended rings. Each of these rings representing the connections in your relationships (from closest to casual): at the centre for me is my immediate family and a small number (fingers/toes level) of close friends – in my case, a total of no more than 6 or 7 people, certainly less than a dozen. The next ring includes extended family members and the closest co-workers with whom I have a relationship, which encompasses less than two dozen people. After that, the ring includes more people from my immediate social sphere from neighbours to friends that I catch up with on an infrequent basis; in the last are my distant relatives, old friends, industry and business relationships. (Beyond that is the Oort cloud of connections in the social sphere many made up of virtual connections, most of whom I’ve never met in person or spoken with live.)

Years ago (and seasonally relevant), the evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar and anthropologist Russell Hill looked at the web of holiday cards sent by an average family. They found that a quarter of the cards were sent to family members, while friends received nearly two-thirds, and colleagues received 8 percent. At the centre of the study was the total eponymous number of cards sent out: 153.5, or on average, about 150. Going through my own set of social sphere connections, I believe my own Dunbar number is closer to 250. (I’ve excerpted this from Drake Bennett’s article, “The Dunbar Number, From the Guru of Social Networks” where you can read more about this work.)

Each of these bands can also represents the level of comfort with each of these, from most intimate to more distant or remote. This means that with the few people at the centre, that’s the zone where you’re most comfortable zone with your closest and deepest connections. At the outer edge, the ones where you’re comfortable in casual conversation and engagement.

That’s a lot to take in.

The impact of your decisions and actions

“We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.” – Randy Pausch

In life, there are your friends and family – the rings closest to the centre of your concentric circles – where decision might directly affect these people closest to you, particularly when the changes involve where and how you’re living, finances, personal relationships, or your career. And depending on the nature of your decision, it could have far-reaching impact on your broader set of relationships – those rings further out in your own circle – including the people in your local neighbourhood and community, colleagues and connections (such as many of the people on LinkedIn and other social media sites that your follow), and members in your other IRL social circles.

At work, you have to consider the immediate teams involved in implementing or being impacted by your proposals and decisions, ranging from individual contributors and peers, executives and leaders, and all of the people in between. Then there are those who may be indirectly affected: other departments or teams that might feel the impact of a decision’s downstream effects. Finance, operations, marketing, sales teams, customer service, and even other product development groups. And then when you’re considering products that are part of and empowering a vast ecosystem of external stakeholders, you have to consider customers, partners, and suppliers, and even investors and regulators.

Impacts of your connections

“Everywhere was connected to everywhere else.” – Terry Pratchett

Imagine an update to Urban’s diagram, here the various black paths on the left side of a diagram converge to that same single point, each path representing the various decisions, interactions, and outcomes that contribute to where and who you are at this moment in the centre. And then looking to the right side of the paths (the future) you see the possible green paths you might select and the different life paths open to you.

There’s another dimension to this, which is the intersection of the life paths from others, meeting and intertwined with your own green lines, with the potential at each decision point for a new (perhaps, blue lines) branches, representing the many other choices you could make, the paths you might follow. In some cases, the paths and options are clear (most often those nearest to where you are in the moment). And as time progresses, these blue lines would then branch out farther in your life paths, with each new decision point leading to even more possibilities, and further impacting the paths of others in your orbit.

In the article, “The Ripple Effects You Create as a Manager”, author Monique Valcour looks at the impact of a leader’s decisions and mindset on people and teams at work and affect how we experience and respond to different situations. The impact and interactions of our decisions often affect more than just a single person and can have subtle yet profound impacts on those around us. And I appreciate that Valcour cites Adam Grant’s book “Give and Take” illustrating that when we adopt and projecting such a generous mindset, it can result in fostering trust, transparency, and positive behaviours with those around us.

What also struck home with me was the look at a 20-year study of healthy employees: it found that people with strong social support from the people they work with were two and a half times less likely to die prematurely than those without a strong level of support. To me, it reaffirms the importance of these supportive connections with others in your concentric circle at work, doing more than just improving the harmony of your work and life, but also emphasizes the importance of how being connected can be a net positive for your health and longevity.


“The Road goes ever on and on, Down from the door where it began…” JRR Tolkien

While your own life path diagram may be quite complex, with a multitude of black, green, and blue lines crisscrossing the page (in reality, the number of potential life paths is virtually infinite), you begin to realize that every decision you make, big or small, leads to a new set of possibilities. (I’ll leave you to grapple with Urban’s post on “Putting Time In Perspective”.) And though you may think that you can quantify the impact of those impacts and potentials as I did many years ago, you come to find that the impacts may be more far reaching than you could have imagined.

Your own potential future is vast, and you’re not limited to a basic immediately apparent or obvious paths. There are endless possibilities, and you have the opportunity and the ability to choose the ones you want to explore… and hopefully prioritizing how to best spend your time to do so.