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Of Noble Descent

I have a confession to make. I am not a Natural Born Networker.

I didn't become chairman of the board of the fraternity of the University of Leiden or Delft ( the places to study in the Netherlands). I haven't played hockey since the age of 3, or any age for that matter. I've never lived in Wassenaar, the Dutch home of the rich and famous. And for a very long time I really disliked all the typical networking activities.

But worst of all: I am not of noble descent.

First Mover Advantage

In networking you find the law of the First Mover Advantage. He who starts first, gets the most. The most contacts, the best network, the biggest amount of social capital. An early bird ...

But why should anyone bother about this so-called 'First Mover Advantage'? Well, as Matthew Jackson and Alison Watts 1 state: "Network structure is important in determining the outcome of many important social and economic relationships." The larger and more active your network, they point out, the more likely you are to be invited to a party, hear about job opportunities, get the low down on the latest consumer products, or even be tipped off on the hottest heist prospects. So having good social capital seems to pay off in all areas of life--even in crime!

The question is: How does social capital develop?

The development of social capital--step by step

Social capital builds up in time. It grows.

Look at Figure 1. No matter how large or small your network is right now, anything that you do from now on changes that social capital. Meeting more, different, new people, forming better ties to old acquaintances, getting involved in other cliques.

Figure 1. Your current social capital

Just as you can increase your financial capital by adding to a savings account, you can increase your social capital too! And just as with saving cash, starting early gives you a head start.

Your social capital in 5 years from now may look like this (Figure 2)!

Figure 2. Your social capital prospects

So whatever form your network takes right now, it is the sum of everything that has happened in your past.

Now, where does that leave you and why does being of noble descent matter?

Born into nobility. Or not

I was born in Suburbia. My father was a salesman, and then later a civil servant. My mother stayed at home and took care of the family. We had a pretty average life I guess: a dog, bicycles, a car, school. I never met anyone rich. I never met a captain of industry, a national politician, or even the local mayor.

This didn't bother me at all. I had a happy childhood. But networking-wise, I also did not lay the foundations of a sturdy stock of social capital.

Things would have been very different if my parents had been of noble descent. Then they would have launched me into networking.

Nobility is a First Mover Advantage

Jaap Dronkers 2 studied 1872 people from 113 noble families and compared their social success with that of 2860 people from 78 upper middle class families. And guess what he found? He found that throughout the 20th century, members of Dutch noble families were more likely to hold elite positions in society than their untitled fellow countrymen.

Even though nobility is supposed to have lost its significance in modern communities!

In other words: To become a CEO or president, it helps to be a duke. So there you have it. It is not your fault that your network is so poor. It is all your mother's fault because she didn't marry the Prince, but her prince!

In networking it helps to start early. It helps even more if your parents started building your social capital before you were born!

If not of noble descent, what hope is there?

Don't despair; there is hope! There are ways of bumping up your social capital.

In France or England you could have chosen the right university to go to. A 'Grande Ecole', Oxford or Cambridge.

And in the Netherlands you could have been chairman of the board of the fraternity of the universities of Leiden or Delft. The same Jaap Dronkers, working with Seraphine Hillege 3, showed that holding one of these posts increases your chances of achieving an elite position in business, politics, or state bureaucracy by 15 to 30 times compared to being chairman of other student clubs. Wow, 15 to 30 times!

Missed that too. Is there no end to this network misery?

Yes, there is. As the pictures showed, networks are dynamic. They do change. You can make a change; you start the rest of your networking life today!

Networks change because of external events. New research areas become a priority, old research is stopped, universities change their structures, start collaborations, and end certain activities. The world around you changes.

Networks also change because of internal processes: Bonds between people get broken. Friends move house. You get a job, or get fired. New friendships are made. Loves end. Your world changes and you yourself change.

Networks evolve, so no matter what, in 5 years from now the cliques that you are part of will have changed. With or without your active involvement.

What all this means is that you are not at the mercy of an accident of birth. You can change your network for the better, looking for improved social capital.

The end of network misery

Networking: "It's the integrity, stupid!"

Key in networking, in social capital, in having friends and acquaintances, in being member of certain cliques 4, is that it should be a natural thing for you to do, an integral part of your daily life! Fun or nothing.

And for all my talk of your parents and your noble descent, a look at the top of the fortune 500 Dutch companies shows that although some business leaders apparently walked a privileged path to get there, others certainly didn't. KPN, TPG, Numico, Philips, Hagemeyer, VNU, and Wolters Kluwer, for instance, have leaders that were never members of a fraternity.

Or for that matter, look at me. I have friends and acquaintances. I'm into multiple cliques. With some people I play golf, with some I do business, with others I just talk.

This whole series about networking came into being because I have a friend that knew a guy who needed a speaker for a symposium. I gave the talk and met someone who liked my ideas about networking and gave me the opportunity to write an article. ...

So there are ways of getting elite positions, in any field in life, without being noble or going to the 'right' university. Networks change and now is the start of the rest of your life. You too can start building social capital.

How? Simple, get active with people who you like! Then you may enjoy getting invitations to parties, hear about job opportunities, learn about the best consumer products, or even receive the best criminal tip-offs!


  • M. O. Jackson and A. Watts, "The evolution of Social and Economic Networks," Social Science working paper 1044 (September 1998)

  • J. Dronkers, "Has the Dutch Nobility Retained its Social Relevance during the 20th Century?" European Sociological Review 19, 81 (2003)

  • J. Dronkers and SMM Hillege, "Board membership of traditional male fraternities and access to Dutch elites: a disappearing avenue to elite positions?" European Sociological Review 14, 191 (1998)

  • D. van Vlooten, So It's a Small World--So What?