6 Degrees of Separation

I have a big project now at a company where I was a once full-time employee.  Today somebody asked me how long it would take me to find a contact in a selected industry who was responsible for advertising.  He was referencing a presentation I gave nearly 7 years ago.  It was the third time in past 4 weeks that somebody had referenced this presentation.

In that presentation all those years ago, I was to report on my business development activities.  I decided not only to report on the WHAT, but also on the HOW.  There was already a sense of legacy surrounding this presentation as several of the WHAT parts have become significant parts of the company’s business are now well-documented on this company’s web-site.  The real surprise was to hear how one of these “HOW” parts had sunk roots and had worked its way in to the vocabulary of daily business.

The section of the presentation to which I refer was about the power of networking.  In it, I described the principle of The 6 Degrees of Separation.  (Not to be confused with the famous road-trip game The 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon, though the concepts are very much related.)

The principle of 6 Degrees of Separation says that every person on the planet is only 6 (or fewer) degrees of separation from every other person on the planet.  A degree of separation is also know as a “move” or a “connection”.  Social networking sites such as LinkedIn, XING, and Facebook bank on this principle.  This says that you can pick anybody on the planet and:

  • you will know somebody (1st move / degree)
  • who knows somebody (2nd move / degree)
  • who knows somebody (3rd move / degree)
  • who knows somebody (4th move / degree)
  • who knows somebody (5th  move / degree)
  • who knows this person (6th move / degree)


This sounds totally absurd until you look at it mathematically and then start dealing out real-world examples.  Let’s look at it mathematically first.

Do you know 44 people?

If you do, and if these 44 people also know 44 other people (2nd degree), who in turn know 44 people not already in this growing network (3rd degree), and then expand it out to the 6th degree, there will be over 7.4 BILLION people in this group.  The population of the earth in 2009 was estimated to be about 6.8 Billion.  So, based on some very simple mathematical assumptions, it is possible that 6 moves which expand the circle of friends at a rate of 44 people per person per move, will move the circle out to include the entire population of the Earth.

Now let’s look at some concrete examples.  I knew that this would be a mind-bender for this audience 7 years ago, so I prepared some examples.  As expected, they challenged the concept.  I was ready.  I asked, “Whom would you like to find?”

I expected that they would ask for George W. Bush and a few celebrities.  Sure enough, George Bush was indeed the first request.  I went around the room and asked several people how many moves she / he expected.  The most common answer was, “Forget it!  There IS no connection!”

Then I dropped the hammer…

“There are actually two paths between you and the President of the United States.  The first path has 3 moves.  The second has 4 moves.

Path 1:

1st Degree:         You know me.
2nd Degree:        I know a guy who was a Secret Service Agent
                           who was on presidential duty.
3rd Degree:         This guy knows George W. Bush.”

Jaws were already dropping, but I went on.


Path 2:

1st Degree:         You know me.
2nd Degree:        I grew up with a guy who now works closely with
                           the government of the state of New York.
3rd Degree:         This guy knows Governor George Pataki.
4th Degree:         George Pataki knows George Bush.

Shall we find anybody else?”

Sure enough, they asked for Madonna.

“OK.  Here is  Madonna in 4 moves:

1st Degree:         You know me.
2nd Degree:        While living in San Francisco, I was in a band
                          and we shared a rehearsal studio with a girl band.
                          We knew all the members of this band.
3rd Degree:         One of the members of this band knows Courtney Love**.
4th Degree:         Courtney Love knows Madonna.”

What is the lesson here, Grasshopper?  😉

Networking is mathematically destined to be successful!

In the above examples, it seems highly improbable that the circles of friends & acquaintances of the cast of characters involved would ever cross. 

But, they do.

And…   I have many such examples. 

Now imagine how the probabilities rise when considering people in related industries or people with similar backgrounds!  Finding people in industries related to yours is much more likely than the above examples!

** In case you don’t know who Courtney Love is, here is an excerpt from Wikipedia:  Courtney Love is an American rock musician and actress.  Love is primarily known as lead singer, guitarist, and lyricist for the alternative rock band Hole and for her marriage to the late Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain.


Posted: 13 AUG 2010

The 6-degrees Saga continues…

Just a few weeks ago, I heard from a former roommate for the first time in many years.   Between the time that we were roommates and now (2010), she had moved to New York City and had immersed herself in this and that scene: fashion, music, avante garde, who knows, does it really matter?  Whatever scene it really is, she knows a modern phenomenon: Lady Gaga.

You, the reader, are now 3 moves away from LG.

1)  You know me.

2)  I know my ex-roommate.

3)  She knows Lady Gaga.

Now who dares argue with the power of networking?

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