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

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

  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 /
    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

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

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:

  • Getting a job gets you a professional network, which you can try to
    turn into a friend network.
  • Making friends on Twitter is much easier than making friends
  • Joining a church is supposedly a good way to connect to a
    pre-established network, although this didn’t work for me (it was a
    UU church, which may not be representative of the general
  • There are a lot of professional meetup groups that are basically
    explicitly networking events. Software development is particularly
    good for this.
  • People always recommend activity groups for this. This maybe true,
    but it didn’t really work out that way for me. I think there’s a
    skill to using them this way that I lack.
  • There’s more support for bootstrapping a romantic partner than a
    friend network, so you can always find people to date using the apps
    and steal their friendship
    network (Personally I found online dating the absolute worst and cannot recommend this strategy at all, but I do know people for whom it’s worked).

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

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.

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