What do Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and Six Degrees of Separation have in common?  The answer is – people all around the world believe in them.  But, since I don’t wish to do an exposé on Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, I’m going to leave those icons alone.  I want to talk about the Six Degrees of Separation idea.  This is the widely-held belief that we are all connected to each other through, at most, six intermediary connections or people. 

I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, but it’s just not true.  In fact, it is a widespread urban legend.  I know, I know—you’re thinking, “What?  That can’t  be!   It’s common knowledge that we are all separated by six connections to anyone in the world.”  Well, I hate to burst your bubble, but the idea that we are all connected through Six Degrees of Separation is rooted in myth—not in fact. 

The legend originally stems from several “small world experiments” conducted by Stanley Milgram in the 1960s and 70s.  These experiments involved sending folders or letters from a group of people in one part of the country to a specific person (whom they did not know) in another part of the country.  The people were told to get the material to someone who might know someone that would know the individual to whom the material was to be delivered to.  This process formed a chain of connections linking the people together. 

It was, in fact, found that the letters or folders which eventually arrived in the right person’s hands took, on average, between five and six connections or degrees.  This part is true; however, if you look closer, you will discover the problems that exist within the blanket statement that “we are all connected by six degrees.”

First off, though the average number of links for people who got the material through to the final contact was five or six connections, the majority of the connections that were made ranged from two to ten (the average was five to six).  This means that roughly half took more than six and roughly half less than six.  Well, you say, that’s the average and I would agree that there’s nothing wrong with addressing this concept by the average, but there’s one small problem.  The overwhelming majority of people in all of Milgram’s studies never got the material to the intended recipient at all!

In Milgram’s most successful study, “217 chains were started and 64 were completed—a success rate of only 29%.” (*)   That’s right—a success rate of less than 1/3 of the participants!!  So, what this means is that 29% of the people in Milgram’s most successful study were separated on average by six degrees from the final contact person.  However, that means that 71% were NOT CONNECTED AT ALL!   

But wait, I’m afraid it gets worse.  This was Milgram’s most successful study.  In another of his studies, only 5% of the participants completed the chain, which means that 95% of the people in the study never made the link to the person they were supposed to connect to at all—ever! 

Don’t shoot the messenger, but I am afraid to tell you that we are not “all” connected with everyone in the world by Six Degrees of Separation.  We’re just not… not all of us.

So, why would I, someone who has devoted most of his professional career to business networking, be telling everyone about the Achilles heel of this iconic concept upon which a lot of networking pros hang their hats?

Well, there are two reasons.  First of all, I believe this myth creates complacency.  The thought that everyone is absolutely connected to everyone else on the planet by six degrees gives some people a false sense of expectation and thus lulls them into a sense that the connection is bound to happen sooner or later, no matter what they do.

Secondly, and most importantly, the studies’ findings indicate clearly that some people are better connected than others.  I believe that’s important because it means that this is a skill that can be acquired.  With reading, training, and coaching, people can develop their networking skills, increase their connections, and become part of the roughly 29% of people that are, in fact, separated from the rest of the world by only six degrees.
 
Milgram’s work was revolutionary.  It opened up a whole new world of discussion and understanding.  It has, however, been romanticized.  The mythical version of his findings does no good for anyone.  It gives people a false sense of security or an erroneous world view of the networking process.

I believe we do live in a “small world” that is becoming smaller and smaller; and I also believe it is possible to be connected to anyone in the world by only six degrees.  I just don’t believe that “we are all” connected by six degrees and Milgram’s own findings support that.

The good news in all of this is that it is possible to be part of the 29% through education, practice, and training.  We can be connected to anyone through the power and potential of networking.  In fact, by understanding that, we can set ourselves aside from our competition by knowing that being able to make successful connections is not an entitlement.  Instead, it is a skill that only some actually develop.

As for the 71% of people who are not connected and yet still believe in the Six Degrees of Separation concept – keep the faith.  You’ll always have Santa Claus.

* Could It Be a Big World After All?  The Six Degrees of Separation Myth by Judith S. Kleinfeld, Forthcoming, Society, 2002