The Many Sides of Friendship

Each quarter Chris Yeh and I convene about 20 of our friends on the peninsula and 20 of our friends in San Francisco for a conversation over lunch. Each lunch, called the Junto, has a theme. So far we've discussed and debated happiness, love, belief systems, humor, storytelling, death, Americanism, and this quarter: friendship.

My friendships are important to me and an area of my life to which I devote a lot of energy. My thinking about the topic generates questions that I felt grateful to be able to discuss at the Junto: What are the types of friendship? Should all friendships be bi-directional / fully reciprocal? Can you be close friends with people you hire or fire? How do you develop emotional intimacy with professional friends and intellectual energy with childhood emotional friends? Can you have a composite best friend instead of a single best friend?

Below are some of the key nuggets from our conversations. Full notes are here. (I missed some notes due to my laughter control issues in the very amusing San Francisco conversation.)

  • The measure of depth is trust. Trust is engendered by the things you share, since that makes their actions predictable. The more shared experiences you have, the more predictable they become.
  • The more settings in which you see a friend, the more you can trust that person. The person you only see in one setting can't be relied upon in other settings. That's how fraternity initiations work. That's why off-sites work.
  • Emotional connection is what switches someone from an acquaintance to a friend.
  • How can you add an emotional dimension to professional/intellectual relationships? How can you add an intellectual dimension to childhood relationships?
  • A lot of CEOs believe that they can't have a friendship with a subordinate or co-worker. But they also know that they need to be able to motivate people. So they share stories to establish an emotional connection.
  • A regular friend helps you move; a true friend helps you move a body. Use this to determine how many close friends you have – for how many people would you help move a body?
  • How do you break up with a friend? We don't have a script for doing this like we have for romantic breakups.
  • Friendships can by asymmetrical. Sometimes the "value" that flows back and forth takes different forms. Socialists worry about asymmetry. Capitalists only care if the two parties enter into a willing exchange. Is it wrong to think about "providing value" to a friend?
  • The best friendships are reciprocal but you don't keep score.
  • Do you have a best friend or a composite best friend? It's hard to find a single friend who fulfills all the different friendship needs you might have. Plus, a composite best friend eliminates the single point of failure ("The Voltron model of friendship.") Is the concept of "best friend" an antiquated notion?
  • In a good friendship, the whole is better than the sum of the parts.
  • U.S. is more transactional than other countries. Other countries see friends more immediately as "family."
  • Is it harder now to form deep friendships than it was in the past? If we're more mobile, perhaps yes. Simple math: You can know more people these days, which dramatically divides your attention across more relationships.
  • You want your friends to be able to criticize you but not judge you.
  • The quality of your relationship with others depends on your relationship with yourself. Do you love yourself?
  • It's impossible for someone to be your friend if you're not having fun with him. Having fun with the person is a universal value of friendship, despite in general it being a very personal and individual thing.
  • In California, after one meeting you're friends with the person, after two meetings you're good friends, after three meetings you're best friends.
  • Technology has expanded our capacity to maintain connections in the outer circles but doesn't affect how many relationships we can maintain in our inner circles.

Here's David Brooks' definition of friendship. Here are my favorite lines from Montaigne's book on the topic.

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