What is “Networking?”

“Seventy-nine percent of wealthy network five hours or more each month vs. 16 percent of poor.”

I’ve been doing some more thinking about Dave Ramsey’s list of habits of the rich. Sojourners recently ran its own critique of his article, which brought it back to my thoughts. Ramsey put together his list of “rich people habits” from a book called Rich Habits by Tom Corley. I have been trying to understand where the scientific-sounding stats from Ramsey’s list come from. According to Corley’s web page he derived these numbers from personal observation. “Tom spent five years studying the daily activities of 233 wealthy people and 128 people living in poverty.”

I have not read Corely’s book, so I do not know if his analysis and percentage figures are as anecdotal and un-rigorous as this sounds to me on its face. Most of the terms in Ramsey’s article based on Corley’s book are woefully undefined. “74% of wealthy teach good daily success habits to their children vs. 1% of poor.” What is a “good daily success habit”? The problem of definition begins with what is meant by “rich” and “poor.” Is poor defined as below the federal poverty line? Or is poor simply “not rich.” I will give Corely the benefit of the doubt that these things may be better defined and sourced in his book than on his web site or the Ramsey article based on it.

In any case, the concept of “networking” jumped out at me. Rich people do it. Poor people don’t, Ramsey and Corley say.

“Networking” as I understand the term means building social relations in order to gain career advantage. That is to say, getting to know people who might help you down the line.

In other contexts getting to know people is known as building community. Do poor people not have this or do they not talk about it using the same terms as those who read lots of business self-help books?

When I have worked low-paying jobs, the guys I worked with were always on the lookout for something better and they were always saying things like, “I am thinking of moving to Kentucky because my friend knows someone at the such-and-such plant and they’re paying $X and he can get me in there.”  The typical narrative for an immigrant is that he works hard, gets established and paves the way for others from his community back home to immigrate and work here as well. In that way, working class people help other working class people by connecting them with opportunities and jobs.

My impression is, of course, entirely observational and anecdotal but it seems to me that people with low incomes are just as likely to learn about job openings through personal contacts as rich people. People don’t often speak of this as “networking.” “Networking” is a word used by a particular subculture– ambitious, career focused, white collar folks who dream of wealth and reaching the top of the ladder.

The difference between Dollar McRichman’s “networking” and Bob Elbowgrease’s “networking” is in the type of job he learns about and the social class of people in their circles.  If “networking” means consciously striving to know people in the right type of positions and the appropriate social class another common name for it is “social climbing.”

In fact, when it comes to relying on community connections, every study I have read says that it is the poor who are the champions, not the rich. The poor rely on social networks to help meet their needs, the rich pay people and buy stuff.

As Daniel Golman writing in The New York Times sums up some of the research done by Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at Berkeley, and Michael W. Kraus, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Mr. Keltner suggests that, in general, we focus the most on those we value most. While the wealthy can hire help, those with few material assets are more likely to value their social assets: like the neighbor who will keep an eye on your child from the time she gets home from school until the time you get home from work. The financial difference ends up creating a behavioral difference. Poor people are better attuned to interpersonal relations — with those of the same strata, and the more powerful — than the rich are, because they have to be.

I would like to suggest that the word “networking” is used to remind people whose primary focus is financial wealth to value social networks by framing them in terms of the career benefits that might come from it.

In this sense, Ramsey and Corely may be entirely right. What sets a rich person apart from a poor person is not his moral superiority, his far greater intelligence, his superior resourcefulness. (It takes a heck of a lot of resourcefulness to live on minimum wage.)  What differentiates a rich person from a poor one is that the rich one has demonstrated his ability to amass wealth. That’s it. There are many ways to do it– some laudable, some less so.  A rich person may be rich because he invented something we all value or because he discovered a barely-legal way to move numbers around on Wall-Street or because she is as loved as Oprah or because she has no qualms about ripping people off. What the rich have in common is their possession of big piles of money and the resources to hire people to help them keep hold of it.

The word “networking” symbolizes a mindset and a set of priorities, one that frames friendship in terms of career and sees career as the source of personal fulfillment. Another way of living is to see career as something that affords you enough money to live so you can have relationships that are the source of personal fulfillment. Ramsey and Corely give instructions on how to become rich, and the way to do that (putting luck and fate aside) is to make money your priority.  (I think everyone has to acknowledge that some people start the game on third base when it comes to building up a big pile of cash. I’m talking to you Affluenza boy!)

Networking may well be a “rich” person’s habit. The idea that therefore we should all do it assumes that we should all be striving to become rich.  (How rich isn’t specified.)  In much the same way that women are supposed to try to “achieve” the beauty of supermodels we are all supposed to be envious the wealth of Richard Branson. It is assumed that the existence of rich people is a commentary of sorts on our own relative net worth. There is an underlying tone of moral imperative not just to have enough but to aspire to riches.

Of course, no one wants to be poor, but there is a vast gulf between not having basic needs met and being “rich.” (This is why I have a problem with the vagueness of how “rich” and “poor” are used in the Ramsey article.)  Money has what sociologists call “declining marginal utility.” That is to say, it improves life considerably when it takes a person from living under a bridge to living in a house. But once a person has enough to meet basic needs, more money doesn’t make people much more content. Going from having no TV to having a TV makes you quite happy.  Going from having a TV to having a big screen HD TV with 3D doesn’t pack the same punch. Going from having a big screen HD TV with 3D to having six of them provides even less satisfaction.

I have no qualms with people valuing money and being driven to become rich. That is fine as an ambition. It shouldn’t have to be everyone’s ambition. In other words, a person who lives somewhere in the middle, having money worries from time to time, but drawing primary satisfaction from things other than financial wealth and career (family, arts, religion, friendships, volunteering, social work, what have you) should not be seen as a failed rich person. In our culture it seems that is what we are all assumed to be.

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