Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’ – Martin Luther King, Jr
I’m reading Here Comes Everybody: How change happens when people come together by Clay Shirky and looking at things from a new point of view.
As is often the case once you’re shown a new idea it seems obvious.
For example, the society that existed before the Internet is obviously different from the one that exists now.
Once upon a time it was hard to publish anything.
You needed money and machines and technology to print books, make films and reach people.
Now, it’s effortless and virtually costless for any of us to be publishers.
In such a world some things change and others remain resolutely the same.
Take fame, for example.
We think of famous people as a special breed – these sportspeople, actors and celebrities – who are in the public eye.
But what is it that makes them famous?
At one time you might have said it’s the media.
You’re famous when you’re on television or in the papers.
Shirky argues that fame is actually a matter of counting links.
In theory everyone can connect to everyone else on the Internet.
In practice we can only do so much each day.
We might know 10, 20, 200 people well.
We might be able to send a certain number of emails or tweets, or make calls.
Whether we’re famous or not, the number of connections we can make with someone else is limited by our own cognitive limits – what our brains can do without blowing up.
You can’t talk to 2,000 people a day – not real one-to-one conversations anyway.
So, two people can have only so many outgoing links – red arrows in the picture above.
But, any number of people can link to you – to your material or follow you on social media or send you emails.
You can’t stop a million people all sending you messages on every digital channel you have.
You also can’t respond to them. It’s out of your control to do it personally.
You will need help to even think about trying to do that.
Fame then, according to Shirky, happens when there is an imbalance in links – more coming in than you can possibly handle.
Not more in than out – the point is that we can all have the same number of links going out plus or minus a few because that has to do with our own cognitive limits.
It’s when we’re simply unable to deal with the links coming in.
That’s when you know you are famous.
Which gets us to your boss and why he or she is famous.
If your boss is the kind of person who likes to be informed then you’ll copy her into every email you send.
It’s just one email, after all.
But, if she’s working with 20 people and they all send her emails – just one at a time – they build up.
And she can’t answer them all, or has to work very hard trying to keep up.
And the load simply gets worse the more people you have.
The problem, once again, is that there are more inbound links than you can physically handle.
It’s the problem of being famous.
Everyone knows you as the boss and tries to keep you informed and you’re deluged with information as a result.
So here’s the funny thing about fame that I get from Shirky’s observations.
If you think that by becoming famous you’ll have deeper and more meaningful relationships with more people – you won’t.
As you climb your career ladder and become more well known you’ll find that you simply can’t know and talk to everyone.
Not because you don’t want to but because you’ll start to reach the human limits of what you can do.
So where does that leave us?
With just the human realisation that you can have a certain number of meaningful relationships and if you’ve got more inbound ones than that – well, you’re famous and just can’t do anything about it.
What’s left is your work.
So make sure you enjoy that.