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Getting Serious About Adult Friendships

A post-college friendship formula.

Source: Dreamstime

Coming off of a long weekend of hyper-social activity feels like the right moment to take a sober beat and do a little post-party analysis about the people with whom we choose to spend our time.

We often hear the cliche saying that we are only as good as the company we keep — or the slightly more specific claim that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. These may indeed be sweeping platitudes, but they’re not totally wrong.

And while these aphorisms inspire many of us to be extra discerning about the romantic life partners we choose or the jobs we take, we too often don’t apply that same rigor to friendship.

I recently attended a small, heavily curated gathering full of really smart, really interesting people. It was a like a human candy store, and unlike large-scale events in which there’s general anonymity and you only meet a few of the other attendees (which can have its own appeal), I found myself wanting to have long, in-depth conversations with each of the guests, and wanting to continue to build a friendship with several of them.

Anyone who is single and dating perhaps best understands how challenging it is to find someone who inspires you to focus your attention for a prolonged period — or a lifetime — but also how exciting it is when you do feel that initial spark and the promise of something more. I believe sparks aren’t just the stuff of sexytime romantic trysts. Friend sparks are equally (if differently) exciting. And I felt a few of those at this particular party, so I followed-up in pursuit of taking those sparks to the next level.

In one instance, where I bonded with a couple, there was an unfortunate, unspoken, “this person might be threatening to my relationship” designation, and I didn’t make the cut (it happens, I don’t take it personally). In another instance, I got slotted into the “Casual Business Acquaintance Zone” in our post-party correspondence. If you thought the “Friend Zone” in dating was the worst, I can assure you nothing is less flattering than the Casual Business Acquaintance Zone (CBAZ): You know you’ve been CBAZ’d if your new “friend” rejects the idea of sharing a meal, getting an adult beverage or engaging in some type of activity, in favor of a quick 10 a.m. coffee next to their office. It’s a way of interviewing you to sniff out how you may be useful in the future and approaches friendship like business networking.

But wait — friendship is networking. Or at least it should be. Sort of. It’s the most important type of networking we do. And it yields the biggest payoff, both personally AND professionally — but only if we choose the individuals deliberately and thoughtfully invest in them by putting in quality time. I want friends and life partners I can also collaborate with. We’d all have richer lives if networking looked more like friendship and if friendship were regarded as serious network-building (minus the lame coffee dates).

I believe all the best stuff in life requires work. But when it comes to friendship (and romantic partnerships, for that matter), we often get caught up in serendipity and believe fate and convenience will do the heavy lifting, leaving us to just sit back and enjoy the abundance our companionable angels delivered to us.

Of course that is usually as disappointing as it is unrealistic, unless we pitch in. Destiny is cool and all, but relationships matter too much to be left entirely to chance. I recommend a two-pronged framework for creating a satisfying, long-term social life:

1. Be deliberately mindful and ruthlessly discerning in choosing your friends.

This might seem obvious and cliche, but in this particular area of life, we are largely haphazard and reckless when we should be thoughtfully critical. Just because someone happens to cross your path does not make them friend-worthy. Develop your own vetting system and exercise it rigorously, unapologetically. (“Nice” is important, but it shouldn’t be the only criteria needed to make the cut.)

Imagine you are your own talent agent. Your agent would not let you choose just any project. She would weigh all the variables and choose the best possible opportunity with the best possible outcomes. Because you can’t do ALL the projects all the time. You’re in demand. You have choices. So start making friendships your agent would approve of. (To be clear, this agent isn’t just focused on superficial social climbing; she cares about your emotional and intellectual development and overall happiness.)

Exercise caution and a seriousness of purpose, rather than relying on serendipitous meet-cutes to be your only criteria for social bonding. Interrogate both your current and prospective relationships: Who do I learn from? Who challenges me? Who can I confide in? With whom do I find joy? I want the people I spend time with to reflect back to me something that is admirable or aspirational for me — not financially, but on a human level.

In deliberately making adult friendships and romantic partnerships, you are saying to that person, “I choose to witness your life.” Ask yourself: Is this person worthy of witnessing? (And for that matter, am I?). Fear not: Worthiness is not determined based on achievement alone. It’s assessed via the deliberateness with which we live, however quietly and subtly. And while you may deem them worthy of witnessing, the extra bonus comes from respecting them enough to also feel humbled by their mutual decision to witness you.

Think this sounds snobby or exclusive? Your attention is limited. If you rest it on whoever happens to wander within sight or is merely presented to you by other friends and acquaintances, without doing your own vetting, you are saying that your attention is expendable. It’s not abundant, it’s scarce and precious, and sloppy socializing isn’t a badge of honor.

Mindfulness is all the rage right now — and rightfully so. We’re bombarded with stimuli, so stepping back and creating mental space is crucial for survival. But it’s not only digital pings vying for our attention: There’s also a lot of human noise to filter through. Mindful social selectivity is not a value judgment. It’s not about designating one person “good” or “bad,” but strategically assessing the complementary nature and power of any single mutual investment.

Most of us don’t eat whatever we pass by in the store. We read the label, we contemplate how it will make us feel and perform, both now and in the future, and we make our decisions accordingly. We benefit from approaching adult friendships (and relationships in general) with a similar seriousness of purpose.

2. Prioritize human investment.

So here’s the trick: Yes, you need to be mindfully discerning about the friendships you make and keep, but you also must remain open and receptive. These two things may seem at odds, but really it’s a more nuanced filtering system.

Let’s first establish that you are not too old to make new human connections. Childhood friends, college friends, early-career friends, and the friends of our significant others often dominate our social time. And given their abundance and the long history we have with them, this makes sense. But friendships can still be friendships while falling into one of two radically different categories: active or passive (and that designation can evolve and switch over time).

Passive friendships include your loose ties. They are some of the people you bump into at parties, coworkers you greet in the hall, some of the people who date or marry your friends, individuals who aren’t on your “avoid” list, but also don’t get prioritized for special one-on-one time. You don’t seek them out so much as occasionally pleasantly share space. Some old friendships should also fall into the passive category: individuals you might not seek out or bond with if you met today, but whose shared history creates a comforting connection. These loose connections matter, but require boundaries. Don’t mistake them for relationships worthy of your full investment (but stay open and alert enough to know when one of these casual acquaintances should be promoted in your friend sphere). Be ruthlessly honest with yourself about the role each person should play in your life and categorize them accordingly.

Active friendships, on the other hand, are the ones you go out of your way to schedule with, to show up for, to learn from, to make new memories with. You might not hate talking to someone at a party, but “inoffensive” does not an active friendship make.

In choosing who’s active relationship material (a phrase we too often associate exclusively with romantic partners), remember that it’s about more than having the same taste in music or liking the same TV show. Yes, overlapping taste preferences can indicate some level of compatibility, but pay more attention to the lifestyle and value overlaps than their Spotify playlist. How someone lives their life is more important than the soundtrack that accompanies them.

In the age of binge watching, remember that active friendships are as important as the content you consume. Relationships supply the live action content of our lives. Which free human platforms will you tune into?

You might say you already have too many great people in your life that you don’t get to spend time with now, making prioritizing new friendships impractical. So, allow me to clarify: I’m not suggesting you add more of these passive friends into your life. “Pleasant time killers” will inevitably infiltrate your existence across multiple contexts of your life. The challenge is to recognize them as the passive relationships that they are and make space for the high-value active friendships. But remember that relationships, and friendships in particular, are always evolving. Be it sparked by geographic disruptions, a new life stage, or personal points of transition and upheaval, there are specific moments when we become more or less available to our social circles as a whole and specific individuals. And unfortunately, these changes often deplete your active adult friendship supply.

I recently learned three close friends are moving. As someone who’s lived a nomadic existence in the last few years, geographic distance generally doesn’t faze me. But as someone who is also currently focused on building local community, the impending physical separation from three close local friends is not insignificant — in part because I take the business of relationships very seriously, and also because of the daunting, challenging task of meaningfully replenishing active friendships in adulthood (see exhibit A: my recent party experience above). These three people are not passive acquaintances. They are people whose lives I enthusiastically witness and who I am proud to be witnessed by. And this latest geographic disruption to my social life reminds me that while “making new friends” is a quaint phrase we most often associate with young children, it should be a lifelong pursuit and priority.

Nuanced Configurations: It’s Complicated

Here’s an uncomfortable reality: Some of your friends’ significant others (both temporary and permanent) might not make the cut into your active friendship category. That’s OK — and you need not inform them of this in some type of warped, platonic version of The Bachelor: “Sorry, Jeff. Susan is hot and sweet and all, but I just can’t give both of you a rose.” I aim for 75-80% of my time to be with the active friend I choose, and try to keep the significant other moments to casual group situations as much as possible.

And if you do happen to find both partners investment- and witness-worthy, then that is a relationship gem worth prioritizing. There are several couples I’m friends with where, while I met one of the partners first, I have come to have equally fulfilling relationships with their life partners. In these instances, instead of one person to witness and be witnessed by, I get three entities: the initial friend, their partner, and the relationship itself — or who they are together. These Coach and Tami Taylor-style partnerships are based on deep friendship, an ability to play and find joy in the everyday, and the willingness and ability to go deep — to reach beyond the surface into the difficult, the messy, and the complicated and fully commit. That’s aspirational for me. I want more of that in my life. And witnessing that in action via another couple is of tremendous value. So I prioritize spending time with those people.

Here’s another cautionary side note: if recreating the group bond from the show Friends is your idea of #goals, beware. Friend groups without deep individual bonds can be limiting. They’re more prone to groupthink, and the very nature of the group gathering as the default mode of socializing can lead to the high-school-ification of adult socialization (less acne, but equally problematic). Group gatherings can be a blast, but not exclusively, and not with a relatively static guest list. Cliques weren’t healthy or beneficial in school, and they certainly don’t become more valuable after graduation. I try to invite a rotating cross-section of people to my social gatherings to keep it fresh and block out any hint of cliquishness.

Big social gatherings are important pieces of the social fabric, but going deep and exchanging meaningful ideas is something we’re more prone to do in smaller interactions. They are what move the needle of our thinking and challenge the choices we make.

Plus, if you socialize predominantly in a pre-formed social entourage, it is daunting and intimidating for a new friend or significant other to comfortably join. I prefer to limit my large group social time to less than 25% of my time, and invest in one-on-one and very small group gatherings (with another couple or two friends) the majority of the time. I’ve observed adults whose ratio is flipped to 75% group/25% one-on-one (or even 85%+ group), and the depth often just isn’t there — in them or their relationships. Even if it’s a 50/50 split, the quality of the relationships wanes, as does the personal development of the individuals. We need both, just not in equal proportion: occasional boisterous gatherings that serve as a source for new friend recruits and revelry, as well as regular personal interactions that challenge us to real intimacy and growth.

Besides, the social winners in group activities are the big personalities, the beautiful people, and the charismatic superstars. And while some of those people are excellent and investment-worthy, it’s too easy to overlook the quieter or less obvious high-value people in those contexts. Again, un-high school yourself and good things start to happen.

Golden Girls / Touchstone
Source: Golden Girls / Touchstone

The Friendship Formula

The fact that we too often mistake passive acquaintances as worthy of active friendship, or that we fail to prioritize making and investing in new adult friendships, is not so much a reflection of laziness as it is a byproduct of being overstimulated and spread too thin, and therefore acting on autopilot.

So what’s the best way to give your friend field a conscious makeover? Here’s my adult friendship formula:

  • Trim the fat. Part of making room for more involves purging old relationships that don’t meet your selection criteria. This sometimes happens organically, but you may need to give yourself permission to stop prioritizing a relationship of convenience or based solely on its long history in order to make room for one that can match you where you are and where you aspire to go.
  • Be open for (playful) business. Stay open and receptive to new friend recruits, then prioritize this new budding relationship and commit to the investment (remember: with friendship in particular, it’s not always the frequency, as much as the quality of the time spent). Resist the urge to make those early get-to-know-you encounters into a business transaction. That doesn’t mean you must get wasted together or plan some extravagant adventure. But merely taking a walk in nature, for example, lays the foundation for bonding and friendship in a way Starbucks rarely does.
  • Refine your picker. We (over)analyze signs and communication patterns put out by would-be romantic partners, but it’s crucial to do the same with prospective and current friendships. Create the criteria you need for active investment in someone. For me, that means someone striving for excellence and committed to personal growth, who demonstrates character and integrity, is curious (even if and perhaps especially if it’s also in areas I know little or nothing about), isn’t afraid of intensity and is able and willing to go deep, and is witty and playful (a.k.a. not a drag). Your criteria may look different, but whatever your list, double check it when vetting both new and existing friendships. Different people bring out different qualities in us. Ask yourself if you like who you are when you’re with them. And while fun is great, is their behavior in line with who you want to be and how you want to show up for the things and people you care about?
  • Extra Credit (if you’re feeling bold): Host a stranger party. While I cherish investing the majority of my social time in intimate settings, I also love parties — particularly hosting them. But parties are not all created equal, and I try to constantly refine my approach and stage social experiments. One favorite is a stranger party, in which everyone must bring someone that no one else knows (to their knowledge). I once hosted a variation on a stranger party that took this to a new extreme: everyone had to bring someone who was a stranger even to them. People asked their taxi drivers, their deli guys, the person next to them on the train, or they posted an ad on Craigslist (this last one sounds slightly shady, I know, but one way to attract like-minded people is to see who is willing to take the initial leap of faith with you). An event like this that throws everyone out of their comfort zone is a great bonding exercise that provides an instant shared history and a terrific story of a first meeting. At this particular event, some of the strangers faded back into their separate lives, never to be seen again, some were a little weird (but non-threatening), and some formed new friendships. Perhaps the greatest moment was when we went around the room and everyone’s stranger was proudly introduced. It’s not easy boldly approaching someone for new friendship as an adult, and that bravery is celebration-worthy.

Our post-college adult friendships are begging for proactive deliberateness. Our time is sparse and precious, and we are social sponges: behavior is contagious. All of which makes it ironic that adult friendships are one of the most underrated, taken-for-granted areas of life. When we socialize haphazardly, we get what we pay for. And even if you are being discerning, making new friends worthy of “active” categorization is not an easy task.

But social bonds are big business for our happiness, well-being, and “success” at life (however you want to measure that). And active friendships are serious play that radically alters the course of our lives. So go to (or host) a thoughtfully curated party — but also dedicate yourself to drilling down into the people you want to bet on, and whom you want to bet on you.

In Startup Your Life, I talk about the importance of “Life VCs”: Just as startups need venture capitalists to thrive and grow, we need Life VCs. These are the people that not only witness your life, but actively invest in it. Challenge yourself to proactively seek and invest in new human capital at every stage of your life. While these relationship startups may not all yield a 10x return, some eventually will. Investors never go all-in on just one company, nor do they stop investing once they find a winner. They diversify and never stop seeking new partners. Your friendship portfolio should be no different.