The Gift We Love to Receive but Forget to Give
The easiest and most powerful way of helping others is also the least common.
Posted November 26, 2013
When you ask people around the world what they value most, one answer consistently rises to the top. It’s giving to the people who matter to us. We want to help others and contribute to our communities. But if you look at how we spend our time, we fail to live up to these values. I’d love to volunteer more, but I don’t have the free time. I’d donate more to charity, if only I had the money. If it didn’t require such a sacrifice, we’d all give more.
Yet there’s one form of giving that involves few costs, while offering dramatic benefits to the people around us. It’s the single best way to help someone fall in love, and the most common way that people find a job. It’s also the reason that the Beatles and the iPhone came to exist.
It’s an introduction. It takes just a few minutes to connect two people who might benefit from knowing each other, and the results sometimes change the world. The Beatles came about after a member of John Lennon’s early band, The Quarrymen, introduced a 15-year-old classmate named Paul McCartney to Lennon. Apple was born after a friend told Steve Wozniak, “you should meet Steve Jobs, because he likes electronics and he also plays pranks,” and introduced them. Studies suggest that in the U.S., 45 percent of people find their jobs through other people, and 61 percent of people meet their spouses through introductions—most marriages are the result of the everyday generosity of friends, family members, coworkers, classmates, and neighbors.
As Malcolm Gladwell observed in The Tipping Point, connecting people is a little thing that can make a big difference. In one study, David Obstfeld surveyed automotive engineers on how likely they were to introduce people who shared interests or goals. Then, he tracked product and process innovations at the firm—including an improved air conditioning system and a better system for glass installation. It turned out that the major innovations were driven by engineers who made connections for others. This was true even after accounting for engineers’ technical knowledge, access to inside information, education, and years in the firm, as well as the size of their networks. By connecting people in different areas and departments, engineers set the stage for combining distinct perspectives into novel, useful ideas. We normally think about innovation as the result of what you know and who you know, but it’s also a function of who you introduce.
Part of the beauty of introductions is that anyone can make them. “Connectors are not just people who are well educated. I love that it’s democratic... It’s not about being wealthy,” says Elizabeth Dow, the author of Six Degrees of Connection. “Connectors are the people who… quietly help people behind the scenes.” One of my favorite role models is Adam Rifkin, a shy, quiet entrepreneur who has made three introductions a day for nearly a decade, which have led to two marriages, a dozen business partnerships, hundreds of jobs, and the founding and funding of numerous companies.
When I look back on the moments that fundamentally changed my life, the vast majority began with quiet and generous introductions. I met my wife through an introduction (thank you, Mike) and chose my career due to an introduction (thank you, Tal). When I wrote a book about the hidden power of helping others, it was featured in a New York Times magazine cover story because of an introduction (thank you, Wendy). Adam Rifkin was one of the stars of the book, and fittingly, I met him through an introduction (thank you, Jennifer).
Despite the power of introductions, people often overlook them as a form of giving. In a recent survey, when Americans reported on the different ways that they give, introductions came in dead last. They were more likely to give help, knowledge, recognition, money, mentoring, and skills. Only 27 percent of Americans had made an introduction in the past year.
One of the barriers is that we worry about putting our own reputations on the line. As Liz Ryan pointed out last week, most introductions are reactive: we make them after someone reaches out for help. This puts us in a position of evaluating whether we want to stick our necks out on behalf of someone else. We can circumvent this problem by being more proactive, initiating introductions before people ask. When we choose who we want to connect, we can introduce people where there’s likely to be a mutual benefit and provide a compelling reason for why they should meet.
To encourage more proactive introductions, a startup called Intros is launching an experiment. The idea is simple: Introduce two people, and ask them each to pay it forward by introducing two new people. Here’s how Intros cofounder Robyn Scott breaks down the potential impact of a single pay-it-forward introduction:
- On December 3, Giving Tuesday, you make one helpful introduction, and ask the two recipients to pay it forward.
- On Wednesday, each of the two people you kindly connected makes a great intro between two people they know.
- On Thursday, that's four people paying forward your introduction.
- By Monday, 128 intros will be flying around the world.
- If the pay-it-forward chain is strong, after two weeks, your one intro could create more than 16,000 connections.
During the holiday season, I can’t think of a better way to express gratitude to the amazing people in our lives than to connect them to each other.
Will you join us?
For tips on how to make an effective introduction, see Robyn’s new post, How to Give Super-Powered Thanksgiving Intros.
Adam Grant is a Wharton professor and the author of Give and Take, a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller about how acts of helping others—including introductions—drive our success. Follow him on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/influencer/profadamgrant and on Twitter @AdamMGrant