Lately I’ve been wondering, “What are friendships for?” This is something I thought I had a good answer to until recently. Now, I am not so sure.
How I used to make friends
My first “friends” were other toddlers in the Mommy and Me program I attended around 2 years of age. I think the “friendship by circumstance” model did not change for most of my childhood and adolescence. I became friends with whoever was around me, or at least tried to do so. Who my classmates were and who was on my sports teams largely determined who my friends were. There was little intentionality about it.
How did we even identify each other as friends? Probably it was best described as “random”: liked the clothes we were dressed in, or laughed at the same joke, or just kept getting put together by our parents. Who knows for sure? I simply don’t have any tangible memories of these first encounters nor why the friendship stuck afterward. There are probably many friendships that didn’t stick, that I don’t even remember, that I can not compare them to as a result.
What I did with my friends
The things I remember doing with my friends seem trivial looking back. Part of the triviality is because we were children and the antics of children often appear trivial to adults. Part of the triviality is because they were trivial. There was no purpose other than to entertain ourselves for the hours we were together. There was no “productive” end to our get togethers other than to kill some time and keep being friends.
Bike rides around town. Making food and eating snacks. Doing homework together. Listening to music. Playing (video) games. Going on trips, occasionally. Swimming. Playing in the sand at the beach. Much later, playing poker late into the night, or grabbing a burger and a milk shake across town (no, this wasn’t the 50s).
I don’t remember a lot of direct sharing of ideas or philosophies, although this likely happened indirectly in the course of other conversations or embedded in the meta of our choices and behaviors and topics of chitchat. I did not have political friends and did not sit around arguing politics. I hung out with a pretty straight crowd so there was no doping or inebriating, and most of my friends weren’t musical, nor was I, so no jam sessions.
We came together either for a proscribed time (dictated by parents) or until we got bored of not being bored together (when we were older and self-mobile) and that was it.
When my ideas of friendship changed
There were two points at which my ideas of friendship, and how to select friends, changed. The first was attending college. What was the same as before is that the friendship opportunity set was largely dictated by who was in your dorm, at least freshman year, and who was in your classes. Or, if you studied abroad, who was on your trip. Nobody was making friends in the hallways of class.
But one thing that was different then was that you had to be much more intentional to make friends. Some people joined student groups or other social clubs that selected by intent. Even in class, you were mostly there for your own purposes and there were few group projects in lecture hall, so to make a friend you had to make an effort to chat with people you saw in class. And you started meeting more friends of friends, who might be attending different schools or not even attending school but simply living in the area.
The other point was when I entered the business world, and began relocating around the country for career reasons. You come across a lot of people in business, within your organization, amongst your customers, vendors, etc. It requires on the one hand more chance and on the other more intentionality to make friendships happen. People are at work for a reason– to get things done and make a pay check. Not everyone’s looking to plug in to friend networks.
When I started moving around the country, I started uprooting and cutting the cord on existing friend networks. It became more complicated to stay in touch. And I had to be even more intentional about making friends with people in new places. My friendships started being dictated less by circumstances and more by intentionality– what kind of interests did I want to intersect with potential friends on?
Why I’ve become selective about friendships over time
Looking back on a lot of earlier friendships, I have many happy memories, even when I am no longer friends with certain people, but the overriding theme that comes to mind is “waste.” A true waste of time. I was getting nothing done with these people! Just trying not to be bored. But not living with a purpose, and since there was no purpose there was no way for them to be a part of a purpose that I didn’t possess.
I have a lot more purpose in my life now. I’m not perfect, I still waste time, even with my friends. But my life is now largely guided by various purposes with specific goals at different points in time and my friendship intentions have been strongly influenced by this fact. Now, I select friends who I think share my purpose, or are invested in supporting me as I attempt to live my purpose. It isn’t enough to just “be” with someone, killing time. We are being together for a reason and we’re aware of what we’re working on, either explicitly or in the background as the context of our life and thus our friendship.
I still get contacted from time to time by old friends, who still operate on the “killing time” principle and still want an opportunity to do that. I find I have little patience and even less interest in such outreach. It is not that I judge them or actively dislike them, though there are some people who I think are no longer suitable as friends based upon their habits or values in life. It is more that I see my time as scarce and I don’t want to spend it with people who aren’t actively supporting my purpose.
Where I have been frustrated in friendships– crystalization
In college, I read a book called “Bel Ami” for a course on La Belle Epoque literature. There were a number of ideas buried in Bel Ami, but one that we spent some time analyzing was the concept of crystalization in romantic relationships. The idea is that in every romantic relationship there is an imbalance of power based upon one partner crystalizing some ideal in the other partner and worshipping it. They live to serve this crystalized ideal and lose sight of themselves and their partners humanity. It breeds a sense of neediness that ultimately destabilizes the relationship and destroys it.
It’s an interesting theory, and it may be true of some romantic relationships, but it has never described mine. That being said, I think of it in broad terms when I think of some of my most frustrating friendships, former, current and potential or hoped for. Without getting into the idea of embodying an ideal, I have gotten a sense at times that I want to be friends with a person a lot more than they want to be friends with me. This creates an annoying (for me) instability and ongoing tension that usually resolves itself in the relationship failing completely. I don’t know if this is something other people experience, ie, it’s part of being human, or if it’s part of my unique psychology. But it drives me nuts when it rears its ugly head!
My current theory of friendship
As my life has changed, my understanding of friendship and what it’s good for has changed. I now think about the principles of friendship as fraught with more meaning than I did in my prior periods of non-intentionality. What follows are some major concepts I find important in friendship today.
One of my main purposes in life is to grow, to change, to learn and to get better. I define these things in terms of myself and whatever I believe is my potential or capability. Self-improvement is a theme. I value friendships that help me get better. I also value friendships with people who are clearly trying to do the same. I find I get frustrated with people who are happy with how things are, who are stuck in a rut, or who actively resist change and focus on tradition and the past. I intentionally select for an improvement mindset in my friends and I lose interest in people who either don’t seem to care about it or aren’t making progress.
Loyalty isn’t everything, but it is certainly something. I seek to build an intentional community of people and a community doesn’t last long if it can’t support itself.
That being said, I look at loyalty a bit differently than most. When I think of loyalty, I think about the commitment a person makes to their friends not to be by their side without question, but to provide questions and feedback! To me, a friendship that is secure is one in which the friends feel comfortable to point out what could be improved, and how. I expect my friends to be open to feedback and to be willing to give it to me as well. Some of my greatest upsets have been friendships that try to paper over what is obviously not working, or which end abruptly without explanation of what wasn’t working.
Of course I enjoy entertainment and I need relaxation. I do think “just hanging out” should be a good enough reason to get together with friends. But whereas in the past I was killing time when doing this, now I see the purpose in “just hanging out” is an opportunity to get a check in, to download what’s been going through one’s mind or what they’ve experienced of life recently, and to have a sounding board for processing troubles, thoughts, concerns or challenges.
I find that getting together to share entertainment and relaxation can often be a jumping off point for these kinds of deeper exchanges.
I purposefully select friends who have some different ideas than me. I usually don’t select friends who think the opposite of something I think is a sound truth. I am not looking for a fight or to have what I consider true and valuable assaulted. But I am also not looking for a fellow sportsfan, so to speak, someone who agrees our team is the best team and all the other teams can die and that’s all there is to life. I like to be around people with different experiences, different skills and knowledge, who can introduce me to things I otherwise would never have thought about.
Exposure to good luck and opportunity/serendipity
This is something I’ve come to appreciate only recently, but one purpose to having friends is to be exposed to the luck they bring with them. It could be as simple as inviting you to a get together when you’re otherwise by yourself, or more profound like proposing a mutual excursion across the world. It could be buying you a drink, or buying you a meal, or buying you a gift. It could be making a connection to a person or idea that proves to be enormously valuable to you.
Friends bring with them all kinds of opportunity that can’t be predicted or understood ahead of time. And I think certain people have a higher serendipity curve than others and you can intentionally select for it.
Motivation to achievement and encouragement of the same
I now think that one of the most important aspects of friendship as I understand it now is the motivation friends can provide to greater achievement, and the opportunity they can give to be giving in the same way. It feels really great to help people get what they want from life and having friends who are bought in on you being bought in is a way to achieve that satisfaction.
A friendship built on trust and respect in my mind should lead to a concern with seeing each person achieve what they want to achieve and a sense of being invested in helping them get there.
Inspiration, lifestyle modeling
Taking the idea a step further, selecting friends who are especially good at achieving in some domain or in living the life they want in general is inspirational. It can give us ideas about how great our life can be and it can give us encouragement to make our life the way we want it to be. I try to select friends who are actively striving to get what they want in life, and succeeding, who can model for me what such achievements would like like if I were to do the same.
No one friend has it all
As a closing note, I think it’s important to realize that not every friend has it all. While I hope for some minimum level of competency or capability in each of the areas mentioned, people are unique and the distribution of such qualities is uneven amongst friends, potential and actual. You can get a lot of value out of your friendships even when each of your friends isn’t a superstar in every regard if you’re willing to meet that friend where they happen to be in life.
That being said, friends who don’t come close to some kind of “minimum standard” in some of these areas, or who actively work against my purposes entirely, usually don’t last long in my life.