DRMacIver's Notebook

Getting to know the right people

Getting to know the right people

Here’s a draft bankruptcy piece about how you solve the problem of finding good people in areas you lack expertise in.

It’s hard to find good people these days

How do you find a good plumber?

Easy. You ask a good plumber who they’d recommend.

No, you can’t just google for a good plumber. You’ll find a plumber but they probably won’t be a good one. Good plumbers mostly don’t advertise, they’ve already got far more work than they need. Also there’s a market for lemons problem with unknown tradespeople - most tradespeople are bad to OK (because most people in any job are bad to OK), the ones that are good are worth their weight in gold, but you don’t know which you’re getting and you don’t want to pay the latter like the former and the latter don’t want to work for the rate you’d be willing to pay the former.

(Why do you need a good plumber if you already know a good plumber? Well because they’re a good plumber, and thus they’re probably too busy for you, or because you live on a boat and they don’t do boats, or because you live in a house and they don’t do houses, or...)

This makes it sound harder than it is. You can also e.g. ask a good joiner who they’d recommend.

How do you find a good joiner? Well you find a good plumber and ask them who they’d recommend.

How do you make new friends? Just go to parties and find people you hit it off with.

How do you go to parties? Well, ask your friends to invite you along to them.

How do you find someone to date? Meet people through your friends.

How do you make those friends? Well if the parties option isn’t working out for you you can always find someone to date and make friends with their friends.

How do you find a good plumber? Well you make friends with the sort of people who need plumbers and ask them for their recommendations.

(This mostly doesn’t work in reverse, especially in the city. You probably can’t make friends with your plumber - not because it’s intrinsically impossible, but the interactions you have with trades people are not necessarily conducive to this. I’m sure it works for some people from time to time, but it’s not a reliable strategy)

It’s all about who you know

In general, the way to find the right people is to know the right people, and the right people generally form a network of similar right people, so as soon as you know some it becomes much easier to find many.

Finding the first couple of right people can be almost impossibly hard. For some of these things (e.g. plumbers) you can solve this problem by throwing enough money at it - if you try 10 plumbers eventually one will probably be OK. You might even have the skill to be able to tell they’re OK. For finding friends in a new city, you can’t really buy friendship, that’s not how it works.

Your relationship with a network goes in roughly the following levels of strength:

  1. You can be completely disconnected from it.
  2. You can be tenuously connected to it - you know a small number of people in it, but not necessarily particularly robustly. It’s difficult to ask favours of them because you’re in a low trust / high importance scenario. You need these people to transition to stage 3, but also if you lean on them enough to do that they might get upset with you and disconnect you from the network entirely, putting you back in stage 1.
  3. You are well connected to the network - you have no trouble accessing it, and can use it in the way that you need.
  4. You are part of the network - you don’t just have access to it, members of it consider you one of them in some way, and people access you through it.

Moving from weaker to stronger connections to a network is what I think of as the network bootstrapping problem. Your future strength is built on your current strength.

Transitions from (1) to (2) and (2) to (3) are both very hard, and require quite different skillsets. I’m still myself only really figuring out what those skillsets are, but I’ll do my best to explain.

Being in stage (4) is complicated and tends to vary with types of network - with networks of friends there’s a well defined transition (3) to (4). With networks of plumbers the way you become part of the network starts with being a plumber. I’m mostly not going to talk about stage 4.

Meet the network

Suppose you want to connect to a network that you are completely disconnected from. What do you do?

Well, first off, bear in mind that you might not be able to do that. Many networks are Not For People Like You - you’re the wrong race, class, or gender. You didn’t go to the right schools. Your family’s ancestors didn’t subjugate the right people three generations back along with the other members of the network. Or maybe you’re just too weird and the people in the network don’t want to put up with that. Some networks are just exclusive and nothing you can do will gain you access to them.

This is bad, obviously. I want to be clear on this: This is bad. It’s a major source of inequality. I mention it not because I think this is how networks should work, but because prejudice is a real thing that exists in the world and it’s important to recognise that this problem is linked in with that.

But assuming the network is one that you could, in principle, connect to if you knew how, how do you actually do that?

The common solution for the initial connection to a network is to bootstrap it from another network. Ask your friends about plumbers, ask your friends in one city about people to connect to in another. Turn Twitter friends into IRL friends. This works great if you already have networks you’re well connected to, and those networks are ones that are well connected to other networks. It requires going out on a limb and asking for favours from people, which can be socially tricky and anxiety provoking, but most people are happy to help in this regard.

Specific tip: It’s better to ask for introductions one on one rather than e.g. posting a message on a shared group. You’re more likely to get an honest response that way, and often what will happen in a shared group is that the least trustworthy member of the group will post a bad answer and other people won’t find it worth the effort of arguing with you.

If meeting the network via one of your other networks is not really an option (e.g. because you don’t really have any other networks, or because nobody in your networks knows a good plumber), you need to work harder.

I’ve got to be honest, I’m still figuring out how this works. Here is my very sketchy understanding of how things work:

  1. If you have access to existing networks you are well connected to, you really really should be using them. Ask for favours and introductions. It’s scary, but it’s mostly fine.
  2. Some networks are in some sense “open entry” in that you can gain access to them without knowing people. If you have a job, your work network is like this (Unfortunately finding a job is quite network dependent. Chances are if you don’t have good social connections your first job won’t be very good, but you can use it to bootstrap to a better one. Recruiters are also a way of getting what is basically paid (by the company) access to a network and are less good than personal connections but cast a much broader net). There are also e.g. churches, activity groups (these haven’t worked very well for me), professional networking events. These are often a good grounding for finding other higher value local networks.
  3. Often you can find people in the network you want to connect to and just cold approach them. This doesn’t work for the plumber problem (because if you could find them without a network you wouldn’t have the problem), but it does work for many other networks. e.g. if you want to know people in an academic discipline you can just find and follow some people on Twitter in that field who seem nice and start talking to them.
  4. Many networks are connected to other more visible networks. e.g. I have a hunch that if you walk up to a random house boat and say “Excuse me, I have an odd question”, pause as they brace themselves for the inevitable “what’s it like to live on a boat?” question and then ask “Can you recommend me a plumber?” they will be utterly nonplussed and then recommend you an excellent plumber because they’re a house boater and they definitely know or know someone who knows a good plumber as a result. I suspect going into a builders’ merchant (which tend to be more visible) and asking one of the staff members will have a similar result.

In general I think this is a problem that requires a level of systematicity that people often feel uncomfortable bringing to bear on social problems, and requires you to think about people in fairly strategic terms. My recommendation is to treat every individual you interact with as respect, and to otherwise suck it up and deal with it. It’s unpleasant, will result in a fair bit of low-grade rejection, but generally nothing actually bad will happen and the problem is fairly amenable to hard work.

Starting from zero

The problem is… harder if you don’t have any well connected networks, which many people don’t. It’s been about 15 years since I’ve had this problem, so I may not be the best to advise on it, but here is how I understand the process to work.

The basic idea is that some networks are essentially “open entry”

In that case the solution is to build some networks from scratch and just accept that everything is going to be much harder than it needs to be until you solve this problem, but also accept that things will become much easier after you have solved this problem and thus that it is worth doing (I think a lot of people get trapped assuming that they will forever be isolated).

I think the solution is to essentially start with easier to join networks. A lot of networks make it easy to attach to, because you have a natural entry point into them. For example:

Connect to the network

I had an empty section here. No idea what I was going to write here.

So what?

I’m interested in this pattern for a couple of reasons.

The first is just that sometimes I need to actually find a good plumber, or the equivalent thereof in some other field of expertise. e.g. I’ve been vaguely intending to find a good singing teacher and didn’t have the faintest idea of where to start until one happened to attach to my network of friends (I don’t yet know if she’s good or not - I start next week), and I’d like to develop some general skills for doing this better.

I think some of those general skills consist of just being better about noticing this is a thing and asking for introductions.

The second is that I think it’s a really underappreciated form of inequality. Having a rich set of networks that you are well attached to makes life so much easier, and almost by definition we don’t really notice the people on the fringes or who are not well connected to our networks. Such people are both experiencing a much harder life than people with better social connections, and also are deprived of an environment where they can learn those skills of network bootstrapping because they’re not connected to anyone who can teach them!

(This also scales way further upwards than I have access to - the networks you get access to from having the right families, the right wealth, etc. are things of immense power that I have only the vaguest conception of)

One consequence of this is that if you’re well connected to a network, helping other people join it is almost certainly hugely life improving for them, much more so than you realise. Looking out for people who need help being onboarded into a network that they might not even know exists, and helping them connect to it, is one of the most transformative things you can do for another person, and people should do a lot more of it than they do.


Not really sure why this piece was abandoned. I think it was too large and I didn’t quite know what I was building up to, partially because I was theorising about a problem that I haven’t had a huge amount of success with personally.