Monday, August 4, 2014

Rant: Strength Through Weakness In Vegas

Last week, I spent a few wonderful days on vacation in Vegas, enjoying a bounty of food, wine and Sake, as well as interacting and chatting with numerous interesting people. I traveled there with four members of my "tribe," good friends from my regular poker game including Adam Japko. As a tribe, we are close to each other, have regular contact and share a number of interests. I'm sure that all my readers belong to their own tribes too, close groups of people who share similar interests, from food to wine.

You might be a group of friendly food or wine bloggers, frequently dining out together or getting together to drink wine. When you meet, you will talk about your shared interests, however, as you all move in relatively similar circles, what you share will frequently overlap. For example, you might all read the same food news sites, so will have seen the same articles. This can lead to a relatively homogenous group, where everyone possesses the same basic information, without a significant influx of original positions and opinions. Tribes have numerous advantages, and it is a very human method of gathering, but it possesses its disadvantages as well.

While in Vegas, Adam, of Wine Zag, spoke at the Interior Design Camp, an educational conference of design professionals and aficionados, on the topic of Social Media Know-How. My friends and I attended his speech, both to support Adam as well as to hopefully learn something. In many respects, we were outside of our tribe, surrounded by hundreds of unfamiliar women and men at an interior design conference. Adam, as expected, was an excellent speaker, both witty and informative, and the audience was quite taken with his humor. Through his speech, I learned about an intriguing concept, the "weak ties."

Using his son as an example, Adam discussed how his son had a close knit group of friends, his tribe, but that his son faced confusion as to the direction of his future. In The Defining Decade, Meg Jay discussed problems with the tribe, how it can be limiting and deter originality. However, she believes that answers can be found in our weak ties, those people we know and connect with but who are more acquaintances than friends. It is actually these relationships which tend to promote more growth and change than our tribal bonds.

Meg didn't create the concept of weak ties, which is over 40 years old. In 1973, Mark Granovetter, an American sociologist published a paper titled The Strength of Weak Ties. Within our tribe, we talk through a restricted code, as we already share certain assumptions and understandings. We don't have to use as much detail or explanation, but that can be a negative. With our weak ties, our acquaintances, we must use an elaborated code, which necessarily must use much more detail and explanation, leaving less room for misunderstanding. That elaborated code can actually lead to more thoughtful discussion, delving into areas you might never have done using a more restricted code.

In addition, we tend to learn more from our weak ties than our tribe. The reason is that those within our tribe often share the same information sources, so it is more difficult to learn something new, while our weak ties often derive their information from different sources, giving us the opportunity to learn more from these different sources. Weak ties tend to lead to more innovation, more growth, and more change.

So what does all of this have to do with food and wine? Plenty. If we primarily remain within our own tribes, we can grow stagnant. We may eat at the same restaurants all the time, drink the same wines, attend the same events. We may read the same food & wine magazines and online resources. That can get boring and we likely won't learn much that is new from each other. We may not learn about new and different restaurants or wines. For example, if your tribe primarily drinks and learns about California wines, they might not learn about the wonders of Lebanese wine or Sherry. If your tribe primarily eats at restaurants in Boston, they might miss out on the wonders of specific suburban restaurants.

What we need to do is to also reach out to our weak ties, to seek out their valuable advice and suggestions, which we might not have otherwise found. If you want to expand your horizons, to learn more about food and wine, then you need to take some time to step away from your tribe and hang with your weak ties. We need to mine our weak ties for their knowledge and expertise, to learn from different sources.

The same applies if you write about food and wine. Sure, your tribe of fellow food and wine writers can be helpful in some regards, but in other respects it can be limiting. That is why a number of food and wine writers will all tend to write about the same topic at the same time. They all consult the same sources for their inspiration. However, by spending time with weak ties, you can learn about different topics and issues. Their knowledge and advice may be very helpful, and they could offer suggestions your tribe might not be able to provide. You need to be adventurous, to get out into the world and experience the realm outside your tribe. You never know what you might learn. You might discover plenty of new ideas of which to write.

For myself, while I was in Vegas, I adventured into the world of interior design, definitely a place outside of my tribe. That was a fruitful experience as I learned about the concept of weak ties, which I had not heard about before. I may have intuitively understand some of its basics, but having it become more concrete was enlightening. And having the opportunity to discuss matters with some of these interior designers was also informative. It gave me a new and different perspective, one that my tribe could not have provided.

It may feel safe to remain nestled within our food and wine tribes, surrounded by our close friends, sharing the same interests. Wouldn't you rather regularly take a chance, interacting with acquaintances, and experience new ideas? We all should seek the infusion of new ideas, and our tribes are not often the best place to seek such inspiration. There is an enormous world of food and wine out there, and your tribe will only embrace a small part of it. Seek out others, your weak ties, to expand that small part into a much larger piece.

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