Do you remember the old party game, “Six Degrees from Kevin Bacon?” For those of you who don’t, it’s a game where you tried to connect any actor to Kevin Bacon in less than six degrees. For example, the pioneering actress Mary Pickford was in Screen Snapshots with Clark Gable, who was in Combat America with Tony Romano, who, 35 years later, appeared in Starting Over with Kevin Bacon.

You would probably win the game with this example as it only took three degrees of separation to connect Mary Pickford and Kevin Bacon with a connection spanning the entire history of moving pictures. Brett C. Tjaden, a computer scientist from the University of Virginia, conducted research and discovered that out of the approximately 300,000 actors who have ever appeared on television or film, the average degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon are exactly 2.83! Ponder the implausible odds that there are less than three degrees of personal connectivity between one actor and every other actor who has ever participated in the history of the industry. And Kevin Bacon did not even make the top 50 of actors and their connectivity in Tjaden’s study.

The top honor went to Rod Steiger with only 2.6 degrees of separation. Another top 10 finisher was Martin Sheen at 2.63 degrees of separation. Studying why Rod Steiger is so closely “connected” to every other actor is instructive for any person seeking to build the connectivity of their own client base. The key to Steiger was the diversity of his career connections. He appeared in:

• 38 dramas
• 12 crime films
• 11 thrillers
• 8 action films
• 7 westerns
• 6 war films
• 4 documentaries
• 3 horror films|
• 2 sci-fi movies
• 1 musical

Steiger starred in enduring classics (On the Waterfront and In the Heat of the Night), as well as forgettable B flicks. It is interesting to contrast the “connectivity” of Steiger with that of other well-known actors of his generation. For example, although he appeared in an astounding 179 films, John Wayne ranked only 116th in the degrees of separation study. This is attributable to the fact that most of Wayne’s work was in a single genre: the western.

This relationship between broad versus narrow associations, as it relates to connectivity, gives us a reason to second-guess the long-term impact of the “riches in niches” approach to building a business. In the long run, a specialization strategy can have a funneling effect on our connectivity to potential clients. This might explain why so many veterans of financial services are working harder for referrals after 20 years in the business than they did in their early years. Is it possible that through specialization those advisors tapered their field of influence into a demographically constricting pipeline?

How many degrees of separation do you suppose exist between you and every person of means in your community? The answer might surprise you and raise your awareness of making a conscious effort toward reducing degrees of separation.

Psychologist Stanley Milgram (famously featured in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point) began seeking answers in the late 1960s to what he called the “small world” riddle. He sought to determine if we are all somehow connected and, if so, how? To conduct the study, he employed the use of a chain letter that was given to 160 people chosen randomly out of an Omaha phonebook. Milgram mailed each participant in the study an envelope with the name of a stockbroker from Boston with the instructions to write their name on the envelope and then send the packet to a friend that they thought could get it closer to the Boston broker. For example, if the person in Omaha had a brother-in-law in Springfield, Mass., he would forward it to that individual, and so on.

Researchers hypothesized that the degrees of separation would be as high as 100. Milgram’s study found the actual number to be closer to six; and hence, we have the “six degrees” label to describe the phenomenon of connectivity. Further diagnosis of Milgram’s study reveals that a statistically improbable number of connections to the broker came from three gentlemen in the Boston area. One of them was a clothing merchant who served the broker and was responsible for 16 of the 160 envelopes that eventually made their way to the target.

Who are the connectors in your community? In your field of expertise? How ardent are you in your efforts to make diverse and eclectic connections in your professional and personal associations? Your answers to those questions will undoubtedly determine whether your career navigates in a complex labyrinth “large world” where connections are difficult to find, or a tight-knit and condensed “small world” where connections are always just a phone call or two away.

The degrees-of-separation phenomenon shows us that it really is a small world. Ponder the fact that there are no more than six degrees of separation between you and every potential client in America! The compelling issue, then, is to begin to shrink those degrees of separation.

For the past decade I’ve been studying the questions that great advisors ask to establish some common ground or link to the prospect or client before them. I’ve been on this quest for better questions because I have noted the relational evolution and transformation taking place when two parties find that they have something in common that was not heretofore revealed. This magical sort of rapport—as if some intuitive boundary has been crossed and the travelers look at one another with a knowing glance—says, “You understand, at least in part, my journey.”

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