06/05/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Pushing Your Comfort Zone

When I started writing a book about networking (The Skinny on Networking), I did not realize that one of the main themes would be the subject of comfort zones.

We all know that networks are important. We all know that our value in business depends in part on the extent of our network. And, by the way, many studies show that health, happiness and longevity are directly correlated to one's network. What we don't always think about, however, is that the power of a network is less about its size, and more about its diversity.

Do you recall when people were citing Kevin Bacon as the "center of the universe" - the six degrees of separation thing. Well, actually there are people who have studied Kevin Bacon's network. The study sets Kevin Bacon up at the center of a circle (web). Anyone who worked on a movie with him is given a number 1. Then, anyone who worked on a movie with someone who had worked on a movie with Kevin Bacon is a 2, and so on. What the study showed is that about 400,000 movie people are within six steps of Kevin. That's a lot. And the reason? Well, it's not because Kevin has made a lot of movies (which he has, but many actors have made more), it's because of the diversity of the movies he has made.

Most people tend to congregate with people similar to them. And the people like them then generally associate with people like them and so on. As a result, the people you know, and the people who know the people you know (and so on) tend to double back on themselves (that is the small world phenomenon).

To be contrasted are those who extend themselves to people outside their comfort zone - in other words, to networks, associations, organizations, etc. populated by dissimilar folks (think Kevin Bacon making a lot of different types of movies). These are the people who have the most powerful networks because they are linked to a much wider cross section of individuals.

Reaching out to people who are not like us is sometimes hard. Especially as we get older, we lean to safety - we find comfort in people who look, act and think like we do. As a result, our circle of connections and links is constrained. And so, if you want a powerful, robust and helpful network, get out of your comfort zone. See everyone you come into contact with as someone you may want in your network - thereby giving you access to all the people in his/her network and so on. The result may be great benefits coming from unpredictable sources.

"Discomfort is good. Most people interpret discomfort as a warning sign telling them to avoid something. The opposite is true for networking. Discomfort is a sign that you are doing something right."

Achieving Success Through Social Capital, Wayne Baker (Wiley, 2000)

Jim Randel is the founder of The Skinny On ™ book series. These books have now received more than 100 5-star reviews from hard-to-please Amazon reviewers.