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"Six Degrees of Seth A. Maislin" mind matters
October 22, 2002
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Youíre probably familiar with the concept of six degrees of separation. Essentially, no more than six connections are needed between any two live people on the planet. If a person is selected at random, then starting with you, it goes like this: you know someone, who knows someone, who knows a third someone, who knows a fourth someone, who knows a fifth someone, who knows the person selected randomly. You donít count as the first degree; the path includes you, five middle people, and the selected random person.

I considered this mathematically. The U.S. Census Bureau claims there were six billion people on Earth on July 19, 1999. (They get the date precise, but approximate population to the billion!) Now, if I knew 1000 people, and they each knew 1000 people, with two degrees weíd have covered 1 million people. After four more degrees, weíd be up to 1 quadrillion. Way more than we need.

However, my choice of 1000 is unreasonable because people overlap. For example, one of my social circles has about 150 people, whom I see occasionally at various events. They probably know each other, which means I donít get to count all 150 in my grand total. Otherwise, theyíd get counted more than once in this six-degrees thing.

So forget the 1000, and letís try 100. Do I know 100 unique people? That is, do I know 100 people who donít know each other? Probably I do. Consequently, six degrees of separation works nicely. If everyone knows 100 unique people, our planetís population is covered nicely in only six degrees.

Anyway, these are the kinds of things I think about when I should be sleeping.

When I woke up, I asked myself how Iíd know if one of my contacts qualifies as unique. In other words, how can I be absolutely sure that person A doesnít actually know person B? Without asking them, Iíd be reasonably sure of this only if they traveled in different social circles.

In how many social circles do I travel? Itís a neat question. Try it.

Thereís my family, my neighborhood, and my religious community. I share a few hobbies: swing dancing, writing, volleyball, and acting. I have friends from high school, college, and graduate school. I have colleagues from three past jobs, my current career, and two professional societies. Iíve taught students at two different colleges. Finally, I know my doctors, and a group of other professionals (like my hair stylist).

Grand total: 20.

To give myself fewer circles Iíd have to move on: give up swing dancing, avoid my high school friends, abandon my family. To develop more, Iíd have to try new things: volunteer at a soup kitchen, take up needlepoint, have kids.

Then again, does it really matter? Whatís the point in knowing six billion people if I canít treat the relationships with respect? When we have too many things in our lives, we start to feel burned out and even lost. For me, twenty circles feels about right, because I can maintain and appreciate the quality of these people as individuals.

After all, this isnít about separation. Itís about connection.

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Copyright 2002 Seth Maislin


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