The ability to influence other people can be learned—at least according to author Jon Levy.
Best known as the founder of the Influencers Dinner—an exclusive dining experience created in 2009 that brings industry leaders ranging from Nobel laureates to Olympians to celebrities together to cook and share a meal—Levy has spent the past 12 years fostering a community of exceptional people. In addition to hosting the events, Levy runs a consulting firm that works with companies to help them connect with their employees and customers through applying research in neuroscience, psychology, behavioral economics and more.
Levy shares his approach to making connections in his new book, You’re Invited: The Art and Science of Cultivating Influence, out May 15. The book breaks down Levy’s so-called “Influence Equation”—how influence is determined by the integrity of your relationships and the strength of the community you’re part of, or trying to build—to demonstrate his way of forming bonds with others.
TIME spoke with Levy about the book, the evolving definition of “influencers,” and what the past year has taught him about how to effectively connect with people online.
Your “influence equation” aims to map out the factors that contribute to a person’s effectiveness in forming connections with others. But we’re emerging from a year that has been defined by social distancing and isolation. How did the pandemic change things?
If we’re willing to accept the idea that who we’re connected to, how much they trust us, and the sense of belonging that we share defines our influence to a large degree, then the issue is that as people become more isolated, they often believe they’re not deserving of connection with others. That can really hinder their ability to live a quality life.
What lessons have you gleaned from a year of using online platforms to keep in touch?
In person, a happy hour can be a really fun way to catch up with friends. But if you just pick that up and put it on Zoom, it gets boring really quickly because it doesn’t actually catalyze human interaction. To do something effectively on a digital platform, we need to take into account at least three things. One is that it needs to be entertaining and enlightening; you have to actually provide something that’s a draw. The second is that human beings fundamentally have a need for connection. You don’t just go to a concert to hear the music—you go to a concert because there are people around you who you can interact with. The third is that it needs to be an environment where people have the ability to make an impact. If we’re going to do digital experiences in an effective way, we need to design them for the platform—not just take what we already know and put it online.
Your blueprint for success centers on who you surround yourself with. How do you account for privilege, or lack thereof, in that model?
If you grow up in an environment where your parents are incredibly successful or wealthy, you’ve been born into a network that has a higher potential to accomplish what you care about. I’m not going to say it’s not harder when you’re starting off with nothing. But I really believe that if you can come up with something novel that gets people’s attention, it gives them an excuse to connect with you. And if you start off small and then continue to expand, it’s human nature that people will want to engage with you.
In You’re Invited, you recount the success stories of a wide range of influential people—from Weight Watchers founder Jean Nidetch to American abolitionist Frederick Douglass to South African rugby coach Jake White. Which of these stories were you personally most inspired by?
The story of Jean Nidetch, a woman who started an international organization that helped people find a safe place to discuss their health and well-being in a time when she couldn’t even get a credit card [without her husband cosigning], is incredible. I also hadn’t looked back at the abolitionist movement since high school. And when I saw that people literally still use that playbook, it gave me hope for today’s social movements.
You founded the Influencers in 2009. How do you feel about the term “influencers” taking on an entirely different meaning in the age of social media? Has it ever made you consider rebranding?
I have an incredible respect for the people who can produce popular content, but I don’t think most of them even like the term “influencers.” It’s become synonymous with avocado toast and bikinis. When I originally named the organization Influencers, it was about what actually impacts our behavior, our decisions, our industries. And I don’t think most people who hold the kinds of jobs that really have industry impact have the time to produce additional content for Instagram or Twitter. So yes, I’ve considered rebranding several times, but nothing seemed to stick.
Your first book, The 2 AM Principle, explores the way to live a fun, adventurous life. Was there anything you learned in writing that book that you were able to apply this time around?
The most important lesson was that adventures are generally best shared. It was the people I surrounded myself with that made the experience of a great night out or a trip really extraordinary. We’re better off being at a terrible party with people we really enjoy than at the greatest party in the world with people who are miserable. And I think that holds true for anything we do: the people we are with define the quality of our life.