What do Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and Six Degrees of Separation have in common? The answer is: people all around the world believe in them—despite the fact that they aren’t true.

Now, I don’t wish to write an exposé on Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, so I’m going to leave those icons alone. But I do want to talk about the other widespread myth, that widely-held and often-invoked belief that we are all connected to each other through, at most, six intermediary people, or “degrees of separation.”

I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, but it’s just not true. It is, in fact, an urban legend.

I know, I know—you’re thinking, “What? That can’t be! The idea of Six Degrees of Separation is common knowledge—I mean, it’s been proven scientifically! Hasn’t it?” Alas, no, it hasn’t.

The Actual Research

The legend originally stems from several “small world” experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram in the 1960s and ’70s. These experiments involved sending folders or letters from a group of people in one part of the country to a specific person—whom they did not know—in another part of the country. The people were told to get the material to someone who might know someone who would know the individual to whom the material was to be delivered, forming a chain of connections that would link the senders to the ultimate recipient.

So what happened? Milgram found that the letters and folders that eventually arrived in the correct person’s hands passed through, on average, between five and six connections or degrees on their way to their destination. And that proves it, right? We’re all connected by—on average—five or six degrees of separation after all!

Not so fast. A closer look at the research reveals some problems in this seductively simplistic conclusion.

For starters, while the average number of links for people who got the material through to the final contact was five or six, most of the successful experiments took a series of connections ranging from two to ten. The average was five to six, meaning that roughly half took more than six and roughly half less than six. Of course, this still means that the “five to six degrees” is a justifiable number, as the average—but that’s only the average of those experiments that were successful.

The overwhelming majority of people in all of Milgram’s studies never got the material to the intended recipient at all.

According to Judith S. Kleinfeld, a researcher at the University of Alaska who has exhaustively studied the Milgram work, in Milgram’s most successful study, “217 chains were started and 64 were completed—a success rate of only 29 percent.” That’s right—a success rate of less than one-third of the participants. This means that 29 percent of the people in Milgram’s most successful study were separated on average by six degrees from the final contact person—and that the other 71 percent were not connected at all.

What Milgram’s research revealed is that some people were able to connect to some people through a series of intermediaries, mostly in the single digits, and that most people could not. We are not “all” connected with everyone in the world by Six Degrees of Separation—or, as far as Milgram’s work could reveal, by any number of degrees of separation.

The Good News

Why would I, someone who has devoted most of his professional career to business networking, be telling everyone about the Achilles’ heel of this iconic concept upon which a lot of networking pros hang their hats?

There are two reasons. First, I believe that this myth creates complacency. The thought that everyone is absolutely connected to everyone else on the planet by six degrees gives some people a false sense of expectation. It lulls them into a sense that the connection is bound to happen sooner or later, no matter what they do.

Second, and most importantly, the studies’ findings indicate clearly that some people are better connected than others. I believe that’s important: it means that this is a skill that can be acquired. With reading, training and coaching, people can develop their networking skills, increase their connections, and become part of that minority of people who are, in fact, separated from the rest of the world by only six degrees.

Milgram’s work was revolutionary. It opened up a whole new world of discussion and understanding. However, it has been romanticized. The mythologized version of his findings does no good for anyone. It gives people a false sense of security and an erroneous world view of the networking process.

I believe we do live in a “small world” that is becoming smaller and smaller, and I also believe it is possible to be connected to anyone in the world by only six degrees. I just don’t believe that we are all connected by six degrees—and Milgram’s own findings support that.

The good news in all of this is that it is possible to be part of that well-connected minority through education, practice and training. We can be connected to anyone through the power and potential of networking. And by understanding this, we can excel and surpass our competition, knowing that being able to make successful connections is not an entitlement, but a skill that some will actually take the time and effort to develop—and many will not.

And as for the other 71-plus percent, the people who are not yet connected and still believe in the Six Degrees of Separation concept? Maybe Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny will bring them a subscription to Networking Times.

DR. IVAN MISNER is The Founder of BNI, the world’s
largest referral organization with thousands of chapters
in dozens of countries around the world. His new book,
Masters of Success can be viewed at
www.networkingtimes.com/link/misner