Deep in his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin reveals a secret to his success. His accomplishments steal the spotlight, so I almost missed this buried treasure.
Before I share Franklin’s secret, you need to understand some background to help you understand the outsized impact this strategy had on his career.
Imagine being born in 1706, living in a small house with sixteen siblings, and enduring the cold and dark winters of Boston, Massachusetts, without electricity or indoor plumbing. Imagine being forced to quit school at age 12 because it cost too much money and being sent to work as an apprentice in a print shop.
It’s hard to imagine how much success you could expect in those circumstances. But Benjamin Franklin overcame all those disadvantages to:
- Become one of the founders of the United States;
- Help draft and then sign the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, and treaties with France and Great Britain;
- Build a successful printing business and be selected as the official printer for Pennsylvania and New Jersey paper currency;
- Purchase and operate the Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper;
- Make improvements to the mail system as the country’s first postmaster general;
- Invent bifocals and the Franklin stove and conduct experiments that helped lead to the development of electricity; and
- Help launch multiple community-based organizations, including a university, a militia, and the nation’s first hospital, subscription library, and fire department.
And those are just the highlights. Benjamin Franklin’s accomplishments are so numerous it takes multiple pages to list them all.
Franklin was self-taught and well-known for having an insatiable appetite for reading books and writing.
But you may be surprised to learn that, at age 21, Franklin started a secret club for mutual development that lasted for 38 years. Junto, also known as the Leather Apron Club, included 12 members who met every Friday to share knowledge; discuss morals, philosophy, politics, and science; and help each other in their business affairs.
The group included printers, surveyors, self-taught mathematicians, cabinetmakers, shoemakers, clerks, and a bartender. Franklin credits the relationships he built with Junto members as key to his development and success.
Social capital: More valuable than money
The people you know and the value of those relationships determine your social capital. Social capital provides a competitive advantage by giving you access to opportunities, advice, support, and feedback that money can’t buy.
Humans learned a long time ago that a group of people will be smarter and stronger than any one individual. Lacking the lion’s strength, the rhino’s protective thick skin, or the cheetah’s speed, we discovered that banding together helped us to fight off predators and hunt animals faster or stronger than us.
In some ways, things have not changed. Your ancestors hunted in groups to survive, and you need to work with other people to earn money to support yourself and your family. Cooperation continues to be the winning strategy.
But cooperation doesn’t work without trust, which provides the glue to bind us together. Without it, we would live in a world of paralyzing fear and violence. Trust is social currency that enables us to help each other without exchanging money. The strong social norm of reciprocity says if I help you now, you may help me later. And because you can’t be the best at everything, it’s practical and more efficient to work collaboratively with other people. Although not formally tracked on a ledger, the exchange is often more valuable than using money.
High-trust relationships go beyond fundamental reciprocity and cause people to want to help each other. But this level of cooperation requires both parties to trust each other enough to shed their armor and be vulnerable.
Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal, Palantir, and Founders Fund, is one of the most successful entrepreneurs and venture capitalists of our time. He says his tight-knit network plays a critical role in his learning and decision-making. He described the process on a 2017 podcast:
One thing I try to do every day is to have a conversation with some of the smartest people I know and continue to develop my thinking. I’m trying to learn new things. I find that I learn them from other people, and it’s often people with whom I’ve had conversations for a long time. So, it’s not an approach where you talk to a new smart person every day. It’s one where you have sustained conversations with a group of friends or people you’ve been working with for a long time, and you come back to thinking about some of these questions, and that’s how I find I continue to learn every day and expand my thinking about the world.
Networks deliver opportunity
Why do people compete to get into Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Yale, and other Ivy League schools? Gaining knowledge and skills represents only a small part of the value.
Anyone in the world with a computer and internet connection has access to free education from MIT. MIT makes almost all course materials publicly available for free.
A few years ago, Scott Young challenged himself to learn the entire MIT undergraduate four-year computer science curriculum in 12 months. Studying the free material offered online, he successfully passed the final exams and completed the required programming projects without paying a dollar in tuition. Although he did not earn an MIT degree, Scott’s experiment highlights one way you can acquire knowledge and skills while saving three years and a lot of money.
The total price to attend MIT for the 2019–2020 academic year was $73,160, including tuition, housing, food, and personal expenses. Why would people pay approximately $300,000 for a four-year degree if the course materials are available for free?
Access to instruction and interaction with faculty has value, but students pay the premium for the credential and network. They believe the relationships they will build and opportunities they will find through the alumni network are worth the investment.
Shaped by your peers
Your relationships have an impact beyond your career. You soak up the aspirations, values, beliefs, and attitudes of the people around you. Peer pressure, social status, and norms are powerful motivational forces that can help or hurt you. So be selective.
Decades of scientific research show how social networks influence our behavior, our habits, and even our appearance. Recent studies conclude:
- A person’s chances of becoming obese increased by 57% if he or she had a friend who became obese.
- People stop smoking because the people around them stopped. For employees working in small firms, smoking cessation by a coworker decreased a person’s chances of smoking by 34%.
Don’t underestimate the power of the people around you to shape your behavior. Surround yourself with people who push you to be better. Build long-term relationships with intelligent people who challenge your thinking and give constructive feedback. Direct, honest feedback is hard to find because very few people are willing to tell you the truth. Most people want to avoid conflict, and they don’t want to jeopardize their relationship with you.
How to build social capital
You don’t need to be born into a wealthy family or attend an Ivy League school to build social capital. The internet unlocks access to intelligent, creative, and curious people while also providing you a platform to showcase your ideas.
But a shift in mindset may be required to create the optimal network. Instead of focusing on how people can help you, focus on how you can help them. A paradox is at work here. The more you seek to help other people, the more you will benefit. Act with generosity, and people want to help you. Learn faster by teaching others. Find purpose by contributing to something bigger than yourself.
Notice the precise language Benjamin Franklin used when he described the Junto as a “club for mutual development.” Not “self-development.”
The idea of always putting yourself first is counterproductive and will prevent you from attracting the best people. But as you help others and build stronger relationships, you benefit from their specific knowledge, feedback, and connections.
Here’s how you do it.
- Build skills. To build mutually beneficial relationships, you need to have something to offer. Let curiosity be your guide and invest time building rare and valuable skills in a topic you’re interested in. This will also give you opportunities to connect with people who share your interest. With focus, you can gain useful knowledge and acquire skills in as little as three months.
- Be useful. The more useful you can be to other people, the more they will want to help you. You need to earn trust and provide value.Nobody owes you anything, and it’s unlikely there’s a line of people banging down your door to be your mentor. Successful people are busy. Instead of thinking about how someone can help you, ask yourself, how can I help this person?
- Give first. Offer value without expecting anything in return. Building social capital requires taking a risk. Be as generous as you can by consistently providing value to other people. Stick with it, and you’ll be rewarded over time.
- Write online. Become a magnet andshare your ideas and knowledge through articles, essays, blogs, or social media. Writing online gives you leverage and exposes your thoughts to a broader network of people. And it’s a lot more effective than going to conferences or meetups.
- Go deep. Develop deeper relationships with a small group (6 to 12 people) instead of amassing a large number of weaker connections. Loose connections provide value, but it’s better to focus on building your tight inner circle first. Remember, high-trust relationships go beyond fundamental reciprocity and inspire people to want to help you.
- Focus a couple of steps ahead. Identify people you admire one or two steps ahead of you. Their support is often more helpful than an industry leader because they more recently solved problems similar to ones you’re facing. The people at the top are less accessible and usually far removed from your current challenges. And they often suffer from survivorship bias, meaning they may hold false conclusions about what led to their success.
- Make a list. Be intentional.Identify and make a list of at least 25 people you can learn from and want to know. Before you start contacting people on your list, do your homework and invest time to understand how you might help them. Be prepared to consistently reach out over time and look for new ways to be helpful and provide value.
- Get compounding returns. Invest two hours per week in building and maintaining relationships. Invest one hour in cultivating existing relationships. Grab lunch, go on a walk, get coffee or engage in any activity that allows you to engage in good conversation. Dedicate another hour to developing and helping new desired contacts.
Don’t go alone
Follow Benjamin Franklin and Peter Thiel’s advice and build a tight-knit network of people you trust. Without help and support, your journey will take longer and be a lot more difficult. The pursuit of excellence in any field requires collaboration. Give first, be helpful, and watch your social capital grow.
To learn more, sign-up for the “High-Performance Playbook” email series (it’s free), where I share the best evidence-based strategies, tactics, and frameworks to advance your career and make more money.
 Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler, “The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 Years, The New England Journal of Medicine, July 2007, https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsa066082
 Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler, “The Collective Dynamics of Smoking in a Large Social Network,” The New England Journal of Medicine, May 2008, https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsa0706154