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Everyone is six degrees apart and yet you still aren’t hanging out with Beyoncé

by Colette Sexton
08th Jan 2020

Are the six degrees of separation a myth or a motivation?

The theory is that there are just six degrees of separation between you and everyone else in the world. You are one degree away from everyone you know, two degrees away from everyone they know, and so on.

The six degrees of separation, or six handshakes theory, was first originated by Hungarian author and playwright Frigyes Karinthy in 1929. It was studied by sociologist Stanley Milgram who reported his findings, “The Small World Problem”, in the May 1967 issue of the Psychology Today journal. The theory was then popularised in a 1990 play written by John Guare, which was turned into a film starring Will Smith.

It also became part of a game developed by college students in the 1990s that attempts to link actor Kevin Bacon to the film industry, after the actor said during an interview with Premiere magazine that “he had worked with everybody in Hollywood or someone who’s worked with them”.

Seven billion separations

There are now over seven billion people in the world, and it is hard to believe that we are connected to every other person on the planet. Indeed, many people have rejected Frigyes Karinthy’s theory. But in 2008, Microsoft revealed that any two strangers are, on average, distanced by precisely 6.6 degrees of separation. Their study looked at 30 billion electronic messages among 180 million people in various countries, so it was pretty heavy on hard data evidence. 

It might not be perfect, but it does show that you can connect with anyone in the world if you want to. A friend of a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend knows Beyoncé or Prince Harry or Justin Trudeau. Think of the power that affords you. 

The power (and panic) of networking

Yet networking seems like some mammoth unachievable task for many people. People often complain that they don’t know anyone, but in reality, it is a small world, particularly if you are Irish. Every day, in towns and cities across the world, people with vaguely familiar accents bump into each other and then immediately set about finding each other’s mutual connections. It feels like such a normal thing to do. It is practically built into our nature as Irish people, but many, although they can have these conversations without even thinking about it in private situations, seem to freeze up when it comes to identifying that common ground with professional relationships. 

Now, more so than ever, people are reachable. Most politicians, business people, movie stars (even Kevin Bacon – he has 650,000+ followers on Twitter) are on social media. And everyone has an email address. And still, you haven’t tried to email Beyoncé to get her to use your product, or the business person you want as a mentor, or the person you admire most in your industry. You can reach all of them. You just need to find the six right connections, but you will never do it if you don’t try.

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