I can’t help but feel guilty when I don’t remember someone’s name, or even worse, don’t remember someone at all. It happens to me almost daily. No, I’m not suffering from memory loss, although it sure seems that way, I am just dealing with the rule of 150.
This rule, the rule of 150, is also known as Dunbar’s number after British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. He derived the number from observation and extrapolation from brain-size experiments. We humans, on average, can maintain 150 relationships. This includes past friends with whom we want to maintain a relationship. In today’s world, 150 friends seems woefully inadequate. Think about it…how many family members do you have? How many classmates from high school, college, and grad school? How many from your work environment? How many “friends” on social media?
The first time I heard of this rule, was Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point. He talked about W. L. Gore and Associates where they limited their factories to 150 employees. Everyone knows everyone else at the plant. If the company gets more business than one factory can handle with 150 people, it opens a new plant. The management has desks in the middle of the plant. Everyone knows everyone. They know their names, they know their personal stories, they care about each other. When a recession hits, the workers cut their own hours so that no one has to lose their job. It was a great business case. Their decision to limit their factories to 150 was based on trial and error, but it also provides supporting evidence for Dunbar’s number.
In my job, I probably interface with several hundred people on a semi-regular basis. Each time I change jobs at work, I am once again confronted with meeting several hundred new people. Having changed jobs about 10 times over the years, I have met, literally, thousands of people. I am not exactly a recluse, so I do have friends and family to remember, too. This is all to say that having met thousands of people in my life with whom I needed to have a relationship with for at least a short time, it is not so surprising that when an old business colleague pops up after many years, I generally have no idea who they are without a few hints. This is more true of people outside of my own organization, but even within my functional organization, there are about a thousand people.
So, although it is awkward, I generally re-introduce myself to people I haven’t seen in a long time or whom I know but can’t recall their name. I once said this to a mother of one of my children’s classmates to be slapped down with a “I know who you are, we’ve met, like, a thousand times!” This was done complete with an eye roll and then she turned her back on me for the rest of the event. Oh well. At work, when I re-introduce myself, I usually get a smile and a re-introduction from the other person. Sometimes I get a look of disappointment and even rarer, a deadpan response of, “we’ve met before”.
From now on, I’m not going to let it bother me. I do not need to know a thousand people and I don’t need to remember most of the people I’ve met only a handful of times. My circle of 150 is rich with family, friends, and people whom I’d like to get to know better.
Find the Joy in the Journey…