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Strong Links Vs Weak Links

I’ve been reading this book called The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter — And How to Make the Most of Them Now. (Amazon link. I don’t get money if you buy through here, I’m just linking for convenience as my default method for viewing books is visiting their Amazon page.) One interesting thing that gets mentioned in the book is a model the author calls strong links and weak links.

Strong links are essentially people in your network that you’re super tight to. Imagine your daily routine – they’re people you see on a regular basis – your friend group, your coworkers, family members. etc. Weak link people are the people on the fringes of your network – imagine previous coworkers you don’t really see anymore, but you’re connected on linkedin or something. The book posits that much of drastic life changes in your average twenties~ adult – job change, new spouse, new hobby, new social group, etc are almost always made through your weak links, instead of people you’re tight with. Sounds weird, right? Events that have outsized impact that changes your routine are typically caused by fringe outsiders instead of people tight in network. Why is that? One way to model it is to think of it in terms of entropy, or randomness.

If we think of an average person, they have general routines they follow in their lives. Regardless of the person, they have some things they do on a regular basis – office workers go to work 9-5 on weekdays, students go to class during the semester, etc. The average person might have a lower entropy life – it’s relatively consistent. They work in certain patterns that they’ve become accustomed to. However, we can imagine that each person they interact with also contains this great magnitude of entropy – they have randomness in their lives, but they also their consistency within their lives. Ultimately, no matter how unpredictable our lives are, they are dictated by our needs to eat, sleep, and possibly interact with others. Because of our need to do simple human maintenance on a regular basis, we eventually develop consistent systems to meet these needs – after all, you don’t see people coming up with different ways to feed themselves every day – it’s not like I’m going to work in an office to make money for food on Monday, foraging for berries on Tuesday, then eating scrap from the garbage on Wednesday. There is some sort of consistency or pattern for everyone, even the most divergent of people. Now, if we extrapolate that system of high entropy (When we start doing something for the first time) to lower entropy as we become more accustomed to the activity, we can model that onto our relationships with others. As people become more integrated into our lives, we should expect that they will introduce less entropy over time, unless something external also affects them.

There’s another famous way of modeling known and unknown entities as Donald Rumsfeld put it – known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. I’ll let him describe it, since he did it best:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

Ya Boi Donald Rumsfeld

So how does this concept relate to people’s lives? We can think of our daily routines like the known knowns – things we know about our daily lives, things we don’t expect to change and we know how to anticipate. known unknowns are the calculated risks: things we know about, but not 100% – they’re things we can kind of manage. Think of a product like term life insurance: I know I’m going to die one day. I don’t know when I’m going to die. But I’m 30 years old, with a wife and two kids. If I die, they’re not going to be able to survive. What do I do? Many people accept this risk – they operate under the assumption that they won’t be dying in the near or even medium term future, and that they will be able to continue providing for their family in that interim. Some people buy life insurance. Term life insurance in particular is life insurance that basically covers you for your working years. Term life insurance operates under the assumption that you will be a healthy, working individual who will continue to be paid at a consistent rate throughout your working life. That can be anywhere between 10, 20, 30, maybe even 40 years. In all that time spent working, that money, of course, will go to support your family. However, during this working period that you are covered by term life insurance, you will be paying fees to this term life insurance policy on a monthly or annual basis, whatever floats your boat. If you happen to die during this covered period (excluding things like suicide and so forth, read your policy carefully before signing) then a certain amount of money will be paid out to your family, as a substitute for your years of salaries that your family will be missing out on upon your death. The amount of money paid out and the amount of years the term life policy covers is set upon beforehand – you and the company haggle on these numbers, based on things like your general health, smoking disposition, diseases, etc. This long winded explanation is basically a way of mitigating a known unknown – your date of death. Could be soon, could be 50 years from now. If it’s 50 years from now, the assumption is your long and fruitful career helped provide for your family. If you get hit by a bus tomorrow, then the term life insurance policy will do it in your stead.

Last is the unknown unknown – these are events you weren’t expecting and had no idea to be expecting. Imagine if you were 50 years old, and your parent on your deathbed tells you that you were adopted. That could be something that totally came out of left field, that changes your frame of reference and your life in a completely different direction, forever. These are things you didn’t expect, and basically had no way of knowing to expect.

Now, to think of this in the strong/weak links model, strong links are like the known knowns and known unknowns – you’re generally pretty knowledgeable about your friends, family etc and their behavior – so you act in predictable routines to work around them in your life. What’d be a known unknown in this case? Imagine if you were a twelve year old with an alcoholic parent – generally, you don’t exactly know how your parent will react when they’re drunk, but you do have a general method of coping with them when they are drunk. They’re one way when sober, completely different when they’re not. You learn to deal with their behaviors through a set of rigid behaviors that probably mitigate some of the fallout from their inebriated behaviors. Basically, your daily routines are all molded around the known knowns in your life and your known unknowns. Almost by definition, the things that will totally upend your routine will be the unknown unknowns – the things you didn’t expect and had no idea were going to be affecting you. Because you’re unfamiliar with these new events, you don’t have learned behaviors for these things – you can either fall back on preexisting habits, or you build new ones instead. This can be things like moving to a totally new city for a new job, destroying many of your old routines, but maybe keeping some.

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