Says the popular adage:
Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day.
Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
Teach a man to make friends and now all his fisherman buddies give him freshly caught fish whenever he visits them down by the pier, plus they water his plants when he’s out of town, plus they help him pull through when he’s feeling down, plus he’s also friends with the bakers so he gets fresh BREAD in addition to the fish.
At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, friends are great. Almost any relationship, including romantic or professional ones, is better when it involves friendship.
But friendship isn’t necessarily easy or natural. Everyone is somewhere between good and bad at it.
Friendship is, in fact, a skill. Even if we rarely think of it as one.
And unless you’re especially talented, or unless you’ve deliberately practiced, there’s a reasonable chance that you’re not as good at friendship as you could. Yet there may not be a skill worth mastering more, as the (totally authentic) proverb above illustrates.
This is an introductory essay in what I expect to be a series of posts on friendship. Here, we’ll discuss the “why”: why friendship is a skill, and why it’s an important one. At the end, we’ll briefly lay some groundwork for another essay about the “how.”
But first, a personal anecdote.
An auction of dreams
In the Quebec secondary school system, there used to be a class called “Personal and Social Development.” It was a hodgepodge of sex education, ethics, and other things neither I or my high school friends can remember.1though many of us remember that time the teacher brought a chocolate cake made with mayonnaise, which seemed like a mind blowing idea at the time.
One of the few things I do remember from that class was the “auction of dreams” we had once. The teacher would read out some ambitious life goals, like “to become the prime minister,” and we would bid points to buy them. The one dream I won was “to have a true friend.” I didn’t need to spend a great deal of points for it; my classmates seemed less interested. Perhaps because, to them, it felt more ordinary than the other dreams, or more easily attainable.
But I knew that making new friends was, for me, a slow process. That deep, true friendship was rare. I wasn’t (and am not) disastrously bad at social skills, but I’ve always felt a bit below average, just enough to often be somewhat dissatisfied with my social life. I regularly wish I were part of some cohesive community of friends.
In the narrative of my life, that auction of dreams has become a defining moment. A sign I knew I was slightly inadequate at something very important.
Usually, though, I’m doing just fine. “Usually” as in “when there isn’t a horrible virus floating around and forcing us to cancel so many of the good things in the world.” The pandemic contact restrictions feel as if someone had detonated dynamite in the fragile social life that I had been slowly and painstakingly growing for years. It’s not that I’ve lost friends. But all the contexts — work, organized activities, parties — in which we effortlessly and serendipitously spend time with people are now gone. Social interaction has become more intentional. It takes more energy.
So I’ve been sitting at home, wondering how to save what I could, and how to efficiently rebuild my social life. Then I happened upon the work of Visakan Veerasamy, better known as Visa. If your Twitter is anything like mine, you’ll know who I’m talking about. He’s all over the place.
Visa’s mission is “to build the greatest social graph of friendly, ambitious nerds that the world has ever seen.” As he writes in his book Friendly Ambitious Nerd:
Friendliness is about being a nourishing presence. It’s about becoming somebody who people (including yourself!) love and enjoy. It’s about creating supportive, encouraging spaces where people can feel comfortable sharing their honest feelings. Humans are a social species, we’re practically wired to desire kinship, to be part of something bigger than ourselves. So why not get good at it?
Yeah, why not? Why not see it as a skill, as something you can learn and master?
You can be good or bad at basic human needs
I can think of a few reasons why friendship is rarely framed as a skill.2It’s more common to talk about “social skills,” but my view is that this is both more general and less important than just friendship. One is that almost everyone picks it up to some extent in their youth, usually in school. Another is that socialization is a basic human need. So we learn the art of friendship the same way we learn the art of eating: as a necessity for survival.
But even a basic need like eating involves several activities that we can be good or bad at: selecting foods to buy, meal planning, cooking, picking a restaurant, finding a balanced diet, and even just enjoying what you eat.3Some people apparently never enjoy their food, and eat for sustenance only. For an example, read the beginning of this Slate Star Codex piece.
Similarly, the skill of friendship comprises a bunch of things we can be good or bad at:
- making new friends
- keeping in touch; general friendship maintenance
- providing support and value to friends
- moving from a superficial to a deeper friendship
- managing conflicts and unhealthy dynamics
- ending a friendship, as we sometimes must.
Even though most people learn to do most of these things from a young age, there are signs that we’re not, collectively, that good at them. Many people are lonely, and the media regularly mentions a “loneliness epidemic” (it’s unclear that there really is such a thing, depending on whether you focus on subjective perception of loneliness or increased atomization, but the fact that we worry about it is telling). It’s not uncommon to hear friends say they “haven’t been a good friend” when you talk to them for the first time in a while. And it has become trite to state that “it’s hard to make friends as an adult.”
Of course, there are many reasons why it can be hard to make friends, or why we feel socially isolated. Lack of skill perhaps shouldn’t be seen as a cause. But surely becoming skilled at the items in the list above can be an antidote.
Now, is it worth our time, relative to other skills we could learn?
Friendship as magic
What are friends good for?
I don’t think I really need to enumerate this. But let’s do it anyway.
There is the mundane: having your fish fed when you travel, borrowing stuff you need. There’s everything related to mental wellbeing: staving off loneliness, feeling important, getting emotional support when things fall apart. And then there’s what we like to call “networking”: finding jobs, ideas, projects, things to learn, people to meet, and more friends.
Friends are also shortcuts to skills you don’t have — like fishing. It’s more common to get these shortcuts through commercial transactions, of course, by trading some skill you have for money and then trading the money for someone’s services. But friendship provides a second way to “cheat.” It can even be the skill that earns you a living, if you’re especially good at it — through sales or community organization, for instance.
One cool way of describing the benefits of friendship is in terms of luck. Luck is a word we use to describe the good things that unexpectedly happen to us. Unlike what you may think, it’s perfectly possible to increase your luck. You simply have to expose yourself to as many situations with potential good outcomes — new opportunities — as you can.4I was reading Antifragile by Nassim Taleb as I was writing this piece, and it sounds like Taleb would call this “optionality” as opposed to luck. You increase the probability of a good outcome by giving yourself more options, especially those with more potential upsides than downsides. I’m okay with calling this luck.
And what better way to do that than interact with lots of people who like you?
So friends can provide you with material benefits. They can replace the need to learn some skills. They allow you to manipulate luck. And they do all that while making you feel great.
Life skills don’t get any more magical than that.
right, I knew I’d seen this idea expressed somewhere before
Towards the how
Okay, so how do we master the skill? How do we get better at making new friends, managing friendships, being a good friend, and dealing with the unfortunate uglier parts?
This question deserves a full essay, and one that I’m planning to write very soon. (Feel free to subscribe if you don’t want to miss it.)
The central point, however, is clear. To be good at friendship, you need to be a valuable person to your friends. You can be valuable in many ways, but most boil down to two main qualities: be kind, and be interesting.
To be kind is to care about the people around you. To remember their names and birthdays. To be there when they need help. To apologize when you’ve wronged them. To have empathy.
To be interesting is to bring value to your friends. To teach them things. To bring them new encounters and opportunities. To be a good conversation partner. To nourish their minds.
How can we get better at being kind and interesting? How do we level up the skill of friendship? There are many paths. But the first step is to realize that it is a skill.
Many thanks to the amazing people who read drafts and provided feedback: Gregory Yang Kam Wing, Sarah Boudreault, Rhishi Pethe, Carolina Perez, Padmini Pyapali, Alexander Hugh Sam, Charlene Wang, Sachin Maini, Nivi Jayasekar, Snigdha Roy, Mohammed Malik, Tom White, Alicia Kenworthy, Kritika Sony, and Christian Keil.