One question I often get – from students and colleagues – is why I spend so much effort cultivating connections and friendships with people outside my line of work.  I was initially baffled by this question, but having thought about it, I can see why some people might think it is unusual.  So here is my rationale – and believe it or not, it’s based on science.

Okay, my effort is justified by science.  It’s based on the fact that I enjoy meeting people and building connections.  But I understand why I enjoy it and cultivate it to the extent I do:  it is very good for personal and professional growth and dramatically enhances my quality of life.

And yes, that is based on hard science.  For lots of reasons.

1.  Connection is in our genes.  Spend a little time reading Richard Wright’s The Moral Animal or Non-Zero.  In Non-Zero (to which I will return at greater length in a future post), Wright makes a compelling argument that we are hard-wired for mutually-beneficial social interaction – what he terms “non-zero” interaction (after the game theory notion):

[Our] unconscious [social] savviness is a part of human nature, rooted ultimately in the genes; . . . natural selection, via the evolution of ‘reciprocal altruism,’ has built into us various impulses which, however warm and mushy they may feel, are designed for the cool, practical purpose of bringing beneficial exchange.

He continues:

Among these impulses: generosity (if selective and sometimes wary); gratitude, and an attendant sense of obligation; a growing empathy for, and trust of, those who prove reliable reciprocators (also known as ‘friends’).  These feelings, and the behaviors they fruitfully sponsor, are found in all cultures.  And the reason, it appears, is that natural selection ‘recognized’ non-zero-sum logic before people recognized it.  (Even chimpanzees and bonobos, our nearest relatives, are naturally disposed to reciprocal altruism, and neither species has yet demonstrated a firm grasp of game theory.)  Some degree of social structure is thus built into our genes.

Non-Zero, at 22-23.

It is not hard to see why we’d be hard-wired for connection.  Interaction provides personal security, protection for  family, shared community and cultural memory, support, a sense of identity, a reality check on our perceptions, and (often and hopefully) personal affirmation.  Of course, all of those benefits are selfish, while interaction is no doubt good for the gene pool as a whole.  In fact, interaction, on a broader level, is almost definitionally the basis of community.

2. Interaction sparks creativity. I have no doubt that I am a better lawyer and better teacher because I interact with people from a wide variety of disciplines and many walks of life.  Again, substantial research confirms that creativity is enhanced when someone is taken out of her area of direct expertise and exposed to new perspectives.  Unsurprising, right?  Yet it is remarkable how many people think they are doing themselves a favor by avoiding interaction with other people and focusing single-mindedly on their chosen field.  They think that the blinders help, when ordinarily the simple leavening of social interaction leads to greater and better creative output.

I’ve begun an unstructured, anecdotal research project to test the value of creative interaction.  With some friends, I started Creative Arlington in Arlington, Virginia, because Arlington is a community of experts who often don’t get to know each other.  Because of its proximity to Washington DC (it is just across the Potomac and for about 50 years actually was part of the District), many Arlingtonians spend their “day jobs” as experts in some field of the federal government, ranging among defense, international affairs, environmental protection, energy, justice, education, historic preservation, and so on.  They come home to Arlington and, in many cases, don’t recognize the expertise they could draw upon right on their own streets.  CA was developed in part to get members of the so-called Creative Class in Arlington together – lawyers, government employees, artists, entrepreneurs – to have conversations they wouldn’t otherwise have and to take on projects that arise out of those connections.  In its short life, more than 200 people have joined up for Creative Arlington, with more members joining daily.  (I’ll report on progress along the way.)

In its best form, social interaction can provide for the formation of what Napoleon Hill once termed a “MasterMind” group.  A strong bond of personal interaction among a small group of people may permit these people to serve as sounding boards with such candor and depth that they serve almost as a synergistic meta-mind. I’m aware of no proof of Hill’s supposition that such closely aligned minds actually “meld” or “intermix” in some physical or metaphysical sense, but there is empirical support for the proposition that close-knit groups of collaborators have often achieved results that their individual members may never have stumbled upon alone.

3.  Relatedly, interaction increases the speed and depth of my learning – especially in new fields.  I am almost pathologically curious, and I’m a voracious reader.  But book learning does not substitute for hands-on interaction with those who know more about a subject than I do.  I can’t really learn to paint from a book, for instance.  Yet my interaction with my painting instructor, Jane Coonce, and her students is enriching not only because it gets me pushing pigment around a canvas, but because these people from various walks of life, at various stages of growth as artists and professionals, are reading different things, approaching their art from different perspectives, and bringing their different perspectives to bear on the works I produce.

So that’s why I try to reach out as much as possible, particularly to those who are in fields far different from mine.  And now I put it to you. If you agree that social interaction is beneficial, for ourselves and our living places, what are you doing to increase the number and quality of your connections?