What that means is that the little decisions you make daily, the ones you fret over, are orders of magnitude less important than the crossroads decisions you make. This is true because those decisions have been placed in front of you by your network and are mostly a function of your network, and they don’t typically bridge you into who new networks and new ideas and options.
Crossroad # 1 – What Family You’re Born Into
You don’t get to choose this one. For better or worse, your family is the fundamental layer of your network topology. Seeing your family through the lens of the network forces model can reveal the hidden depth of that influence.
Network clusters influence us in proportion to how frequently we interact with them, how early we adopt them, how strong and reciprocal our ties are with the other members, how much they are reinforced by overlapping shared connections, and how long we expect them to last.
In all of these measures, few of our other networks in life can rival family: Since you usually live in the same house with your family for a large part of your life, geographical proximity makes frequency of interaction extremely high and friction to interact low. Your individual relationship with one family member – usually a strong tie – is reinforced by all the other family members you share in common. We expect family relationships to persist throughout our entire lives, an expectation formalized in most human cultures as a deeply-embedded social norm. There’s a long “shadow of the future” with our family members. We know they’ll always be there, so we’re willing to invest and sacrifice for our family relationships more than for non-family. Family ties have higher bandwidth than others because we see labels like “mother” or “son” as identity-defining. Family relationships straddle the line between who you know and who you are . Future relationships outside the family network, eg friends, dates, etc., will be impacted and reinforced by your family. The closer you get to someone, the more they interact with your family, and the more likely it becomes that they develop their own ties with your family members. All of the powerful factors above are superimposed by, and reinforced with, our biological drive to connect with others who share our genes.
Now that we can see how families are uniquely influential relative to other Networks, it’s clearer why we so often adopt our cosmological, religious views, linguistic dialect, political leanings, dietary preferences, and worldviews from them – despite such things not being genetically heritable.
You go through life thinking such things are innately “you”. But you didn’t adopt your identity in a vacuum. Had you been raised by a different family, you would likely be a very different “you” – Your religion, linguistics, political orientation, favorite foods, worldview would probably be very different despite such things not being genetically heritable.
Our family network impacts what networks we are exposed to and which ones we are constrained from. Family nodes have preferences, and push links to other networks on us in the form of introductions to schools, places to live, jobs, and spouses. There are also prohibitions on fraternizing with the “wrong” nodes in certain networks.
Your family is a low-friction, high-impact network. Because of that essential math, when making life decisions most people will choose the options that most align with their core family network. Be aware of this if you want to be more conscious in directing where your life path will lead.
Your family network is the one you don’t get to choose, and in that sense, it’s not fair. But it’s not destiny. Think of it as another network force – albeit a very powerful one – that puts data on your dashboard.
Crossroad # 2 – High School Network
High school networks are especially important because they are influential when we are forming our identities and worldviews as young adults. High school networks are also correlated with academic achievement, work habits, and even college admission – defining access to future networks and building a vibrant life of your choosing.
Like family, where you go to high school isn’t usually a choice. But if you do have this option still ahead of you, or if you have children and can choose for them, don’t underestimate its importance.
High schools are typically the first peer networks we join that are large enough to have a diverse array of subgroups – better known as high school cliques. As such, they present us with our first significant network-based decision: who to associate with in high school.
The importance high-schoolers place on “popularity” – their status in the social hierarchy of their peers – shows that we intuitively understand the importance of networks even at an early age. In seeking status or popularity, we are, in part, looking to maximize our options in terms of which cliques we can elect to join or form. For most teenagers, that optionality matters deeply.
How does status work? Why does status give you options? Because status lights up the network. It’s a pure shot of preferential attachment we mentioned earlier. Sure, nodes on the network with money attract more money. Nodes with more access attract more access. Nodes with more attention attract more attention. But nodes with status attract all of the above. Nodes of all types want to associate with high-status nodes because it will improve their own status.
Winning status becomes the singular focus of life for many teens, and not a few adults persist in that goal. Adult parents of a high school teen may see it as melodramatic or irrational how much their kids care about their status, reputation, and friends at that stage in life – especially compared with more “important” things like academic accomplishment.
But from the vantage point. of a teenager, social obsession is quite rational. Teens intuitively understand that their high school destiny depends on their network of friends. And though it’s easy to dismiss teenage behavior as irrational and hormonally driven, there are serious consequences to the networks we join early in life. For example, academic achievement in high school has been shown to be directly influenced by friends . “High-achieving students strive for high-achieving friends, low-achievers strive for low-achieving friends… [and] the differences in achievement between the high and low achievers will be exacerbated by the friends they make.” according to one Harvard study, all kinds of traits, from body weight to happiness , are heavily influenced by network clusters. Throughout your life, your “clique” helps define you. The same study also found that the presence of friends in class has a positive and significant effect on test scores.
Moreover, as your first peer-based network you form after you’ve come of age, your high school friends have a particular influence on your lifelong identity – from your tastes in music, to your work ethic, your fashion sense, and your life aspirations – which is only rivaled by family, and in some cases even surpasses it.
It’s not just during high school that high school networks matter. Those who go to college and build a career in the same cosmopolitan area as their high school are likely to retain some parts of their teenage cliques throughout their lifetime, usually forming a core part of their network. All this network force taken into account, which high school you go to matters a lot. Imagine the impact of moving a kid from, for instance, Taiwan or Spain to the US, or vice versa, for high school. How much of a difference would that make to the trajectory of a person? The networks presented to them? The ideas, the sports, the foods, the language, the friends, etc. Imagine moving from Arkansas to, for instance, Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire for high school. Intuitively, we know this will make a difference. But we see the mechanics of that difference more clearly when we see it through the lens of network forces. When navigating the question of which high school to attend or – if you don’t have a choice – who to make friends with as a high school student (or which kinds of people to encourage your kids to befriend if you ‘re a parent, although good luck with getting them to listen), ask yourself the following questions: How big is the high school? The bigger the high school, the bigger the alumni network, which may influence your ability to choose future networks like college, spouse, and jobs. How diverse is the school so you can find nodes and sub-networks that fit you best?
With more options, there is a higher probability you can find a high achieving sub-network in an area you can be ambitious and high achieving.
How strong is the affinity of school graduates?
Higher affinity indicates stronger network links between nodes in the network, that the network is more valuable to the graduates. How much do they brag that they went to that high school? How often do they come back for reunions? How passionate are they about the brand of the school? Do they use it as a strong identity peg or are they indifferent? Those would indicate stronger network links between nodes in the network.
How important is academic success to
high-status students in this high school? The more that popularity / positively correlates with academic success, the more that short-term social incentives will be aligned with achievements that will serve you or your kids in the long term.
Parents and ambitious teens often mistake high school for a competition to get into a good college, either through academic achievement or sports. By focusing on the sound and fury of competing for grades and spots on the varsity team, they miss the higher importance of the network dynamics at stake. In high school, putting yourself in a position to form a large number of strong relationships with the right network nodes can make all the difference, not to “get ahead” but to create a vibrant, amazing life of your choosing.
Crossroad # 3 – College Network
You should choose your college based on its network of students and the geographic network they inhabit more than course of study or sports teams. If you choose the right people to be around in college, they will open up ideas, relationships, jobs, aspirations, attitudes and resources that fit with you and a virtuous cycle will be set in motion. Your network will ask you to be your best self and live your best life, like a trainer at the gym. In this way, your college network will have an exponential impact on your life.