When Weak is Stronger than Strong. Guest Post by Steve Peha

Introduction from Alana

I’m so excited to introduce you to my friend, Steve Peha.  Steve and I met many years ago when I first took on work at the Kauffman Foundation.  He is the Founder of Teaching That Makes Sense, which provides unique professional development events in literacy, assessment, student engagement and educational technology.

Steve reviews enormous amounts of research on education practice and policy. He has written over 3,000 articles (and several books) during his 20-year career in education. His work has appeared on well-known websites such as The Washington Post, Psychology Today, Getting Smart, and Edutopia. He was also an original contributor to The National Journal’s Education Experts Blog and Title I-Derland, Thomson’s Title I-focused education policy blog. His newest book, Be a Better Writer, was an Amazon #1 New Release in Teen Writing.  Suffice it to say, I think he’s a pretty big deal!

When he mentioned his personal story around the concept of “the strength of weak ties,” I knew I had to have it in writing to share with the CLC Community.  And, so, with that, I give you Steve Peha!

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Guest Post by Steve Peha

steve-pehaWhen I got out of college, I desperately needed a job. My grandmother almost got me one. And a couple of friends tried to help. But I was three months out of school, broke, and hopelessly unemployed.

Then a weird thing happened: I got a call from the father of a friend of my brother’s. He’d heard I was looking for something and it turned out that he was the head of a state agency that employed a lot of recent college grads.

Bingo! I was working two days later for the Massachusetts Public Employee Retirement Administration. Not my dream job to be sure, but it paid the rent and kept a little food in my refrigerator. It also turned out to be a great line on my résumé—at least in Massachusetts.

Turns out, what happened to me was not weird at all. My employment was the result of a well-researched networking phenomenon called “the strength of weak ties”.

When we need something, it’s natural for us to go to the people we are closest to, typically our family and friends. But here’s the thing: these people already know what we need and would gladly provide it if they could.

These folks are always in our corner. In my case, my parents and even my grandmother knew I needed a job. So did my brother. Each would have gladly employed me or asked someone else to employ me long before I ever would have asked them.

These were my strong ties. And the people in our lives with whom we have strong ties also have a strong sense of what we need. So if you’re looking for work, and you don’t get a call from mom or dad or your uncle or your three best friends, you’re probably going to have to reach a little farther out.

In my case, farther out meant connecting with a guy I didn’t even know existed. John J. “Jack” McGlynn only knew I needed a job because his son Kevin always knew his father needed recent college graduates at the office. Kevin knew that his friend, my brother, might have someone who fit the bill. (I didn’t really know Kevin very well either.)

Mr. McGlynn, who hired me on the spot, was a two degrees of separation beyond any of the strong tie people in my life. And, if I had been a little savvier at the time, I probably could have gotten a better job in state government by asking Mr. McGlynn to send me on to another person, yet one degree of separation further. He was a state commissioner. He knew every other commissioner and almost almost every politician including the governor. He also had ties of his own—with the Kennedy’s.

The moral of the story is this: The people who are most likely to help us are our strong ties, usually within one or two degrees of separation. But what they can help us with most is getting us to people they know who are another degree or two of separation away. And probably, our very best results will come from people who are one or two degrees away from these folks.

These are people with whom we have no explicit connection. They are the weakest of weak ties. So why do they work so much better than strong ties? They’re looking for people, too. And if they had people among their own set of strong ties, they wouldn’t be looking.

So the strength of weak ties works in both directions. And that’s why, ironically, when it comes to networking, weak ties are stronger than strong ones.

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