The Network Economy – Developing Self-Direction and Social Networks For 21st Century Success


In today’s economy, we are all awash in a sea of uncertainty, and there is no end game of which we can be sure. Things are changing in our social and work environments: the rules, the process, and the structures. Where the old frameworks emphasized the capacity to sell our product, our service or ourselves for maximum profit or personal gain, the emerging one will reward connections with individuals, organizations or communities in ways that reap enduring associational – as well as financial – capital. Being independent-minded about our vision and goals means going beyond reliance on an existing structure upon which to climb higher, focusing instead on developing sets of mutually-beneficial contacts through which we create ever-evolving opportunities.

Time magazine’s May 25, 2009 cover story, “The Way We’ll Work” describes the parameters of the new economy as “a more flexible, more freelance, more collaborative and far less secure work world.” Among the values and abilities for navigating within it the article cites striking a balance between “doing well and doing good,” an more independent-minded approach to career advancement to replace the “corporate ladder” that often rewarded allegiance to the company over integrity, collaborating with co-workers with increasing diversity – including older people working long past conventional retirement age alongside and taking direction from Gen X – and environmental sustainability. Here is another way to see the challenges of this paradigm shift: we can create a future in which making a living is intimately bound up with making a life.

We all have the tendency to want to do things the way we have always done them and a return to routine a great comfort after a destabilizing change. But the shift to a Network Economy has already begun. Things are not going back to what they were, so we are better off using the uncertainty to upgrade our relationship skills and invest in a range of social relationships that draw upon different strengths and expose us to diverse people and situations.

Start with self-knowledge. C. Robert Cloninger, a researcher at the Center for Well-Being at Washington University at St. Louis published studies showing that well-being goes up, and symptoms of depression and other emotional disorders are diminished for individuals who work to develop what he terms “mental self-government,” i.e., becoming more internally directed than externally controlled, more cooperative and compassionate than competitive, more intuitive and thoughtful as a balance to rigid, structured thinking. A positive mental state is defined by some social psychology researchers as “a constructive and mature way of thinking that is hopeful and nonviolent.” People with greater self-awareness have a higher proportion of positive thoughts on a regular basis and demonstrate increased activity in the cerebral cortex, the most recently evolved portion of the brain. This tells us that positive thoughts and emotions are essential to proper brain functioning as well as well-being, And that a constructive, creative approach to problems can lead to a sustainable and enduring share of good feelings.

Here are some ideas for expanding self-awareness that also expand social networks for personal and professional advancement:

Make a list of your established strengths and accomplishments. Be specific. Write down positive comments others have made about these, in letters, conversations, or performance reviews.

Make a list of undeveloped potential and unused abilities. Next to each of these, list actions to take that will tap those potentials. Research organizations, websites, conferences, or classes that offer opportunities to attend training, observe others already involved in these areas, and talk to people.

Take stock of all the people already in your life and the contributions they make to your well-being as well as what you do for them. Write down their names and list the gifts they have already given you. Write down all the roles you take in relating to them and the special skills you use in that relationship. If there are few relationships of this kind on your list, figure out why and change it.

Feel uncomfortable meeting new people? Get busy doing something important. The discomfort will be there, but with a higher purpose.

Volunteer for a not-for-profit organization.

Join local community organizations and sign up for committees.

Journaling, meditation, and creative experiences are excellent methods for increasing self-awareness and self-discipline, but have the added value of getting past the defenses we all constructed in school when we became fearful of making mistakes of appearing foolish. Creative, intuitive ideas flow when we develop a habit of self-reflection that produces a sense of psychological safety. Those ideas show us our most deeply-held passions and vision, and in the network economy it is people who have the combination of mental clarity, self-awareness, and the capacity to be self-initiating who will benefit most from emerging possibilities.