resources and supporters

The Positive Network Effect
by Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek

Hiking through the Rocky Mountains in the fall, one can’t help but be captivated by the luminescent beauty of aspen leaves. Metamorphosing from dark green to brilliant yellow, they shine brilliantly in the afternoon sun.

Only a few who marvel at the beauty of the leaves, however, know about the remarkable structure that lies underground. Born from a single seedling, an entire colony of aspen trees can sprout up through a common root system. Aspens thrive because the root system both nourishes and protects the entire colony. Known as a pioneer species, aspens are often the first tree to sprout after a wildfire. The result is that aspens are both the largest species in the world (with one interconnected aspen root system in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah generating nearly fifty thousand trees over an area of 4.6 million square feet) and the oldest (with one colony estimated to be more than eighty thousand years old).
But if the seedling fails to generate a root system, it will not last past the winter.

People are similarly dependent on vibrant networks—more than we realize. We, too, need deep roots, strong support systems, and nourishing resources to grow and flourish through the seasons.

In our culture, we tend to lionize the heroic individual, often neglecting the essential role that groups and teams have played in our lives and culture. Examples of the latter are legion: the team of Xerox scientists who started the personal computer revolution; the Defense Department teams that launched the Internet; the creative groups in Walt Disney’s early studios; the planners (and activists) of the great social movements of our times; the intrepid teams of explorers throughout history; and more.

In Creating the Good Life, James O’Toole documents a number of compelling examples of this across time and reflects, “The more I read and thought about it, the ‘path-breaking’ loner was a myth.…In the business world, American corporations are often portrayed as shadows of the ‘great men’ who sit in chief executive chairs. This individual focus isn’t always wrong; rather, it blinds young executives to the existence of other models and causes them to discount the many examples of shared leadership running counter to received wisdom.”

There is a growing body of evidence indicating that our support networks and social interactions contribute significantly not only to our success and happiness but also to our health and longevity—from better mental health to lower rates of poor physical health, violence, and mortality. Unfortunately, there is also evidence that our personal support systems are in decline. Robert Putnam famously documented our declining social capital in his landmark work Bowling Alone. According to a 2006 study, Americans reported having only two close friends (versus three twenty years ago), one in four reports having nobody with whom to discuss personal issues, and nearly one in ten reports that their spouse is the only person they confide in.

Roots and Wings

As much as we ascribe to the hero’s journey, we are more fragile and vulnerable than we care to admit. We need others to fortify our resolve, provide perspective, and buck us up with emotional support. The deepest sources of strength among the life entrepreneurs we interviewed were their life partners, families, friends, mentors, and business partners. These close relationships give us roots and wings—roots to ground us and wings to help us fly.

The important people in our lives encourage us to be a person of character and integrity. They hold our feet to the ire when we drift or waver, help us back on our feet when we stumble, and encourage us to leap when we are ready to soar. They provide us with the all-important emotional foundation that we need to step forward in the world with confidence, willing and able to take risks because our root system is strong.

Reciprocity and the Positive Network Effect

When we are doing something good in the world that people want to support, they not only lend a hand but also recruit others to do the same. A splash ripples outward and the power of the shared vision becomes stronger with every concentric circle. We call this the positive network effect: when a positive idea flows through a broad web of relationships, the power of the idea gains momentum, sometimes becoming unstoppable. It is the key ingredient to taking an idea from vision to reality. It is the fuel that has driven social and political movements throughout history. When we work together in good faith on worthy endeavors, our root systems become interconnected, creating a unified effort further strengthened to make a lasting difference in the world.

Excerpted from the book Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives © Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek.

Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek are co-authors of the new book Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (Jossey-Bass, 2008) and founding partners of New Mountain Ventures. See www.lifeentrepreneurs.com.