In the world of success and personal development, there are few individuals with a more intriguing background than Marshall Thurber. A highly successful lawyer, real estate developer, businessman, educator, scholar, inventor and public speaker, Marshall worked closely with the visionary/inventor Buckminster Fuller and has in turn influenced an entire generation of thinkers and institutions, from Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, Spencer Johnson and Robert Kiyosaki to Hewlett Packard, GTE and the U.S. Navy. Marshall has become the go-to expert on what he calls “network science” and how today’s organizations work in this post-Internet world. We caught up with Marshall recently for a brief dip in the pool of his stratospherically global thought process. — J.D.M.


How did you first become acquainted with Buckminster Fuller?

I got bored while going through law school in California, so I started restoring old houses. I started a company called Hawthorne/Stone. You know all those “painted ladies” [restored Victorian homes] in San Francisco?

Yes.

We’re the guys who did that. Over the course of three years, we restored 156 Victorians. Soon after that, I happened to read Bucky’s first book, Nine Chains to the Moon, and it completely captivated me. I had to find out where he was. With all that real estate behind me, I had no money worries, so I got hold of his calendar and followed him around the country. Every week, wherever he was, I would fly there and sit in the front row.

I eventually started a business school called Burklyn Business School, which I located in a 40,000-square-foot Victorian in Vermont. Bucky had a place up in Bear Island, Maine, and every summer he would come up with his wife Anne and they would spend weeks at a time at my property. They did this every year for ten years, so I got to know him really well.

People tend to think of him as a piece of history—but the truth is, I don’t think anyone’s actually caught up to him yet.

No, they haven’t. In fact, the very latest idea in quantum physics—something called causal dynamic triangulation, or CDT, which they’re saying replaces string theory and shows promise of unifying the laws of gravity and those of quantum mechanics—this traces right back to Bucky’s work. This is the generalized theory everyone’s been trying to work out ever since Einstein. And Bucky had the answer all along.

The man with the tetrahedrons.

Exactly! When you read this thing, it’s all Bucky.

There’s a great story about what happened when Bucky first sent his Nine Chains to the Moon to the publisher, back in the thirties. He had three chapters that talked about Einstein and how what he was doing was going to change everything. This was in 1934.

The publisher wrote to Bucky and said, “We can’t publish this book! Einstein says there are only ten people in the world who understand him, and your name’s not on that list.”

Bucky said, “Well, why don’t you send it to Einstein and let him evaluate it?” Three or four weeks later, Bucky’s phone rang; he picked it up and said, “Hello?” and the voice on the other end said, “Hello, this is Albert. I wonder, could you come over for dinner Saturday?”

When Bucky arrived at the dinner, Einstein stood up and said to the group, “I would like to be excused—and I was wondering, Mr. Fuller, if perhaps you’d come into my study?” He took Bucky into his study and said, “I’ve read what you’ve written with great interest, and you’ve given me the first feeling of the positive good that this theory can bring.”

He then took Bucky’s manuscript, which the publisher had sent him, and wrote on it, “I have read and fully agree and concur with Mr. Fuller’s thinking here.”

And we’re still barely starting to grasp what he gave us.

Oh, Bucky’s going to be right up there with Einstein and Copernicus.

And now we’re naming new discoveries things like fullerenes and buckyballs.

That’s right, and the next thing is the unified theory. Then they’ll have to give him a posthumous Nobel prize. They say the rules don’t allow that, but they’ll have to give it to him anyway!

Our theme for this issue is “true wealth.” In your mind, what is true wealth?

The first key piece is health. Take away health and you have no wealth. You’ve got to start with a sound body. We work pretty hard here in my office—but at night, we work even harder at our gym downstairs.

The next thing is, if you want to understand real wealth, you have to know the difference between structural change and cyclical change. Structural change means there’s no going back. How many people came to work today on a horse? Where are the 78s, the vinyl records? Gone.

When the automobile first came out, there was huge resistance to it. They called it the “devil wagon”—after all, it was black, and just think of the immoral things you could do in the back seat. People would literally put barbed wire around automobiles, trying to stop people from using them.

But you can’t stop structural change. If there’s a structural change, you have no vote, you have to embrace it. I don’t care how much you love your typewriter or your old horse, you’ve going to have to learn how to use a computer and drive a car.

Stem cell science is a structural change. It doesn’t matter what your views are or how many people are against it, any more than it did with automobiles or computers. If it’s a structural change, you’ve got to embrace it and take a leadership position.

One of the biggest structural changes in our time is the Internet. This is not cyclic; we’re never going to go back to a time of no Internet. This is why network science is so important.

I’m not talking about the science involved in how to network computers. The actual study of network science is a brand new science, no more than six years old now. And unless you learn this science, you are going to be at a tremendous disadvantage. If you want to acquire wealth, you’ve got to understand the basic theory of network science, which starts with the idea of dynamic value.

What exactly is dynamic value?

Dynamic value means your value is constantly evolving; if it’s not evolving, it’s going to dissipate and disappear. If you want to create wealth today, dynamic value is essential, because with everything networked together, the speed of change is so fast that there is no longer any such thing as constant value.

Is this reflected, for example, in the whole open source revolution?

Open source is all about sharing. Traditional economic theory is based on scarcity, but wealth in the new, intangible economy is based on sharing. Today, sharing means having more—and the faster the better, because speed is the new currency of business.

This means there’s a whole new approach for looking at your offer. Think about your phone: is that a product or is that a service?

It’s a service. And a product.

It’s both. Every technology is going to asymptote towards being free, like phone calls. Did you see what just happened with Apple’s iPhone?

Steve Jobs just cut the price by $200.

Now, how quickly did that happen?

Almost immediately.

That’s right. That’s outrageous. But that’s where things are going. You’ve got to count on cost asymptoting to zero, even as you raise value.

There are two things that create a commodity: a fully informed buyer, and alternative sources of supply. When I was growing up in Vermont, if we wanted to buy a new Ford, there was one Ford dealer in our city, period. If I want to buy a new Ford today, I can go online, put in what I’m looking for, and get bids from every dealer within whatever radius I want. The color and features are all the same, and the only issue is price.

So two forces are dropping price toward zero: a fully-informed buyer and alternative sources. Now, are people getting more or less informed?

Clearly, more.

Because of the Internet, that part of the equation is gone. We’re totally informed. Today, you have to assume that if you’re going to keep your value high, you’ve got to stay unique. And the only way to stay unique is to constantly increase your dynamic value.

How do you do this? You can brand yourself as unique, but there’s not a lot of leverage in that, because it’s just you. And how much of you is there to go around?

Tony Robbins is great, but there’s no leverage. He leverages his value to some extent through his books and programs, but basically, if you don’t get Tony Robbins, you’re always getting a second. So you’ve got to be careful how you brand things. Instead of branding yourself, you want to brand your offer.

You no longer sell a product or service; what you sell are offers. And you’re constantly making your offer a better offer, realizing that as soon as it’s copied, it’s going to asymptote towards zero. When I’m down at my place on the edge of the Caribbean, I’m on Skype constantly, for .008¢ a minute anywhere in the world—and I’m in the middle of the Caribbean!

Wealth is changing very fast. This is why the record companies are losing their ability to control. Because of the Internet, distribution is no longer controllable. Do you know what musical group made the most money last year?

No.

Pearl Jam. And they don’t even belong to a label! Pearl Jam has people sign a subscription. Whenever they perform, they record it, then download it and send it to all their subscribers. They have no label, and they make more money than any other recording artist.

Direct to consumer—again, that’s the network.

That’s right. And that brings us to the next aspect of network science, which is the strength of the weak tie. The way you move your dynamic value is through weak ties, not through people close to you. People close to you are in the same basic network you are. You want to take your dynamic value to the people on the very edge of your relationship.

Right now, you and I are weak ties. We’ve talked, but we barely know each other, and you are exposed to a completely different network than I am. We are two nodes, connected by a weak link. Add a few more links and nodes, and you’ve got a cluster. If you have a huge number of nodes in your cluster, you become a hub.

There are 14,372 airports in the United States. If I offered you $1 per passenger going through 20 percent of all of these airports picked at random, or $1 per passenger for the top ten airports in the United States, which would you take, the ten, or the 2,800-plus?

Give me the hub. I’ll take the ten.

Exactly. You take New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and by the time you have the top ten, you’ll have almost 400 percent more passengers than the other way. Why? Because they’re hubs.

Most people find weak ties that are not hubs. A weak tie that’s not a hub is simply a weak tie. But if you find weak ties that are their own hubs, then you can move with great velocity—and again, speed is the new currency.

So if you’re a network marketer, the key is not to focus on individual people—you want to focus on individuals who are within a hub. The further you are from the hub, the harder you’re going to work and the less money you’re going to make. If you’re in the network marketing business and you don’t understand network science, you’re working too hard!

The way you describe weak ties and nodes, it strikes me as almost antithetical to the classic idea of the good ol’ boys network.

They used to do that because they didn’t have any Internet. Good ’ol boys hung around with each other and knew each other. This is the exact opposite; this bypasses all of that.

By the way, randomness is part of it too. About 28 to 32 percent of the time, randomness comes into play. That means you might just trip over success. If you have randomness plus dynamic value and you understand network science, you’re well on your way to success in terms of financial wealth.

The next piece is integrity. In network science, you’re so close to everyone that the golden rule is no longer simply the golden rule, it’s an absolute requirement. You have to do unto others as you would have them do undo you, or you’ll quickly go out of business. If you break your integrity, you lose part of your network, and you want to keep your network as large as possible. In fact, in many cases your network and net worth are closely correlated.

Is that because you can’t hide anymore?

That’s right. Once you have fully informed buyers, you can’t screw people.

When I was young, I snuck into a fair in Vermont with fifty cents in my pocket. One booth had a sign that said, “Come see a horse with his tail where his head should be and its head where its tail should be!” It was twenty-five cents, half my entire stash, but I had to see this. So I paid my money and walked in—and there was a horse backed into a stall. His head was where his tail should be…

Yes, there’s one born every minute—but not anymore. You can’t do that today, because now, the first kid who got suckered like that would go on the Internet and tell everyone, “Hey, this booth is a rip-off, avoid it,” and that story would go out, and it would be game over.

And he’d snap a picture of the horse with his cell phone.

That’s right. Today, keeping your word is absolutely required.

Marshall, what are “positive deviants”?

Positive deviants are people who think and act differently. The way to find these people is to spend time on the fringe, because that’s where the action is.

If you look at a bell curve, you’ll find 99.97 percent of people underneath the curve, with a very tiny percentage out on either edge. Of the miniscule percentage over on the left side, the negative deviants, most are probably in jail. The ones over on the right side, the positive deviants, are the ones who are really making the changes.

Most people think, “I’ll go where everyone else is”—but you’re never going to find change at the center. If you want to find change, you have to look at the fringe. It goes from the fringe to the edge, then to the realm of “cool,” then to being the “next big thing,” and ultimately becomes social convention at the center. But if you hang out in social convention, you’ll never become wealthy. You have to be willing to go to the edge.

Where did this idea of positive deviance come from?

Right after the Vietnam War, the World Health Organization wanted to find a way to help the people of Vietnam, especially the kids, most of whom were starving. The standard approach to a problem like this was to put in clean water and all sorts of infrastructure—but they knew this would take too long, and thousands of kids would die.

A guy named Jerry Sternum thought, “What if we look for families there who are surviving and see what they’re doing?” He and his wife went over there and found two or three families in each of the four communities they worked with who had healthy kids. They figured out what each family was doing differently. In one case, they were cooking seaweed; in another, they were using shrimp. Whatever that family was doing, they replicated that, and within six months they ended up with over 87 percent of the kids in these four communities meeting the WHO standard of health. Today there are twenty-two countries practicing positive deviance in the World Health Organization.

You can do the same thing in an organization: look for the positive deviant. I have a company called Empowergy that does exactly that.

You go into a company and find the healthy kids, so to speak?

Exactly. We look for the positive deviants and find out what they’re doing differently. Usually they are unconsciously competent: they don’t know what they’re doing right, but they’re doing it. We harvest their knowledge and then give it to the rest of the organization—and we see dramatic positive change happen very, very fast.

Why is the power of the “weak tie” the cornerstone of a network’s strength?

Because they’re out on the fringe of the edge of your network. A famous 1974 study looked at how people find jobs. Mark Granovetter, the researcher, found that most people find jobs from people they know only vaguely, what he called the “weak ties” in their network, not from their close friends.

The people you hang out with are too close to you; their network is going to be very similar to yours. The opportunity for a new job is typically going to be at the very edge of your network, through people you barely know.

The same thing applies to expanding your network. As a leader, your job is to find the weak ties of the people in your downline. Every time you add someone, help them develop their weak ties. Some of those weak ties are going to be hubs.

Network science is all about relationships. Those people who are successful are going to be those who can leverage their relationships—and you can’t do that if you don’t have integrity.

It sounds like we’re living in an environment where the ordinary person can become tremendously empowered.

I think that’s exactly what is happening. It’s much easier to become wealthy now than it ever was. It’s all changing. And it really gets down to your dynamic value as an individual.

www.networkingtimes.com/link/thurber