the diversity/bandwidth tradeoff

in the book, resilience, in the paragraph immediately preceding the one i wrote about yesterday, the authors describe something called the diversity/bandwidth tradeoff:

“As we expand the diversity of social connections we have, the bandwidth we can commit to each of those connections becomes more limited, and the information that comes from them gets weaker and narrower. And that in turns makes weak ties suitable for certain kinds of work and strong ties suitable for others.”

i think about this all time. the two most common contexts for me are productivity and social connections, but it comes up in other places, too.

on the productivity front, it shows up as needing to make tough choices about priorities (the last part of the quote above about weak ties vs strong ties isn’t really relevant for the productivity front, but it is for the social). it means recognizing that you can’t do everything. and you can really only do a few things at the same time if you want to do any of them well.

on one hand, that reality has to do with amassing resources. building knowledge (and sometimes a network, too) relevant to what it is you’re trying to do requires focus. whether its raising a family or becoming an opera star, the more you can focus, the faster and more deeply you’ll learn.

on the other hand, it has to do with creativity. in order to be creative, our brains actually need to have some open space (as simon martin mentions over on the ceros blog in his recent post on the art and science of generating great ideas). when focusing on too many different things, your brain doesn’t have space to make connections because it’s too busy trying to hold information. and as david allen, one of my productivity gurus says, “the brain is a great place for having ideas, not holding them.” you can’t generate new ideas in your lanes of focus if your brain is too busy holding ones you’ve already had.

the diversity/bandwidth tradeoff shows up in a parallel way socially to the productivity breakdown.

for example, when i was in grad school, i really tried to do everything. this resulted in me running myself ragged. what i’ve been learning this year is that it’s super important (and very counter-cultural) to have a clearly delineated group of close friends and focus on those friendships intensely. yes, this means that being close to everyone is not possible, but it allows three things. (1) it allows us to build the type of deep friendship that we all crave (the “i would drop whatever i’m doing if you needed me” type of friendship). (2) it allows spontaneity in those friendships because you aren’t overcommitted. (3) when do you do hangout with someone outside of your inner circle, it means you can show up fully for that person because you’re not exhausted from giving too much to too many different people.

of course, there is always a balance. it’s not good to only be thinking about just one thing or have just one friend. but most people (myself included) try to do way too much and it undermines their success.

sidenote: on this friend front, i think there may be a lot more to this that belongs in another post… for example: