Why Friendship is One of The Most Valuable Parts of Life

Friendship has always been important to me. Never more than now.

There are many great posts on friendship. Check out Maria Popova’s Brainpicking’s selection here, here, here, here and here, and good stuff from Ben Casnocha. A few of my favourite business orientated books include, Keith Ferrazzi’s “Who’s Got Your Back“, Dr Henry Cloud’s “The Power of the Other“, and Michael Eisner’s “Working Together: Why Great Partnerships Succeed“.

Even the majority of the business books I read emphasise the importance of the relationships in their lives and the impact they have on their success and happiness. Check out Ray Dalio’s emphasis on meaningful relationships in PrinciplesEd Catmull’s Creativity Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration; Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike; and Peter Thiels’ Zero to One: Notes on Startups or How to Build a Future.

Why are friendships important?

A person is a person though other persons.” – Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Human beings are wired for connection. As Dr Henry Cloud says “Humans need connection, and their systems are always searching” for the right people to share their lives.

From the moment we are born… a chip inside each of us starts searching for a connection to the right network… and this searching, this needing a connection, is not optional for any of us. It is hardwired and always on, even when we don’t know it and even when we don’t even desire it. As long as you are alive, your heart and mind and soul will be searching for a connection… you need it to thrive…. without a strong and steady connection, nothing new or better can occur…”. – Dr Henry Cloud, The Power of the Other

I recently finished reading The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well by Meik Wiking. It’s a short read, and discusses data that points to happiness being positively correlated with the number and quality of relationships in one’s life. It’s what apparently makes a good life (watch this):

In my own experience, I know I’ve always felt happier when I’ve felt connected with people I love. That was one of the downsides of travelling and being out of the country for so long (and travelling aimlessly for the best part of 3 years) – feeling disconnected.

Likewise Michael Eisner concludes Working Together, Why Great Partnerships Succeed with how there is “...just one overriding cause of happiness: sustained relationships over a long period of time… What mattered was having real communication with someone, love, and friendship… having real relationships was what led to other factors that were common among happy people...”.

A large and extremely influential part of your life is spent with other people.  It’s important that we choose the right people, and devote time to building good quality relationships with them.

It matters.

If you realize how vital to your whole spirit — and being and character and mind and health — friendship actually is, you will take time for it…” – Anam Cara and the Essence of True Friendship: Poet and Philosopher John O’Donohue on the Beautiful Ancient CelticNotion of Soul-Friend

The close relationships in your life are crucial.

Exceptional achievement in work and life is a peer-to-peer collaborative process. Behind every great leader, at the base of every great tale of success, you will find an indispensable circle of trusted advisors, mentors and colleagues… These relationships are, quite literally, why some people succeed far more than others” – Keith Ferrazzi, Who’s Got Your Back.

What’s so great about friendship?

I like the simplicity inherent in most friendships.

Friendship is rarely complicated the way that a sexual or romantic relationship can be, (which is often loaded with expectation).

Friendship is also less effected by the political correctness found in other relationships – family, colleagues etc. (I can tell my good friends to fuck off without offending them for example).

All friendships of any length are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness” – David Whyte on the True Meaning of Friendship, Love and Heartbreak

I like the notion of continued forgiveness often present in strong friendships. I know I’ve majorly pissed off most of my good friends, and vice versa. You’ve got to care a lot about a friend to get past this point. Communicating your feelings is hard enough, and those conversations are uncomfortable and difficult.

“A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.”Tim Ferriss, The 4 Hour Workweek

Candour and the ability to care enough to give honest feedback are heavily emphasised in all the books I’ve read about building high quality relationships.

But, you’re only going to bother going through with it for someone that matters. It’s far easier to shut down or walk away.

Leaving or walking out is rarely acceptable in a romantic relationship, but permitted in friendship. Similarly, if you find that you no longer care for a friend – that’s cool, you don’t have to see them again. That’s not always the case with other types of relationships. It’s pretty hard to walk away from your co-habiting partner or your colleagues, for example.

Defriending isn’t just unrecognized by some social oversight; it’s protected by its own protocol, a code of silence. Demanding an explanation wouldn’t just be undignified; it would violate the whole tacit contract on which friendship is founded. The same thing that makes friendship so valuable is what makes it so tenuous: it is purely voluntary. You enter into it freely, without the imperatives of biology or the agenda of desire. Officially, you owe each other nothing.” – Tim Kreider, We Learn Nothing

The other thing I love about friendship is that it’s purely voluntary. You get to choose who your friends are. You don’t choose your family, your neighbours, your colleagues, or many other people with which you interact. Many of those relationships carry an obligation of some sort – if only to be polite.

As a society, I think there’s an expectation that family should be more important than friends. Blood is thicker than water and all that… Many people are closer to their families than to their friends. But that’s not always the case. I know people who have put up with a lot of abuse from family members. I don’t think that’s right. Being related to someone doesn’t give you a licence to treat them badly, and it doesn’t mean that someone automatically cares about you either.

Prioritising the right people

Relationship affects life and performance, period… Your best and worse seasons were also about who was in that season with you. Either for good or bad. It was not just about you. It was about the others who were playing a big part in who you were becoming and how you were doing… your own performance is either improved or diminished by the other people in your scenario. They hold power… how well you do in life and in business depends not only on what you do and how you do it, your skills and competencies, but also on who is doing it with you… The right kinds of relationships wire us for resilience and success.” – Dr Henry Cloud, The Power of the Other

Jim Rohn famously said that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.  These people will dictate how much money you earn, how much you exercise, your diet, your conduct – how you live, and what you believe.  These people have an amazing impact on your life.  Don’t get it wrong.

We’re all busy, and it’s easy to mindlessly agree to spend time with whoever randomly shows up in your life, or with who shouts the loudest.

Often, people you have habitually caught up with, are not necessarily the best people for you. It takes effort to consciously consider who you should, or want to spend your time.

I recently caught up with an out of town friend. It was good to see her. However, save for a few messages, we hadn’t talked for about 11 months, despite both of us having had a rough times.

We met for lunch during a working day.  Since we hadn’t caught up for so long, the whole time consisted of updating each other on the events of the last year. Technically, we had “caught up”, but we’d had no time to enjoy each other’s company. Plus, re-counting the trauma of the last 12 months wasn’t fun for either of us.

Contrast that with close friends who I’m in contact with almost every day, where we’re aware of the important things that are going on in each other’s lives. This is great because when we do meet, we can spend the whole time taking the piss out of each other, talking about random interesting stuff, planning or doing fun things, discussing new topics of conversation, or providing support, and encouragement. I guess that’s what I call “enjoying the friendship”.

Which friends are worth your time?

You really can’t get… sustained high performance, without… deep connected relationships… Your life, performance, health, well-being, and pretty much everything you value depends on the power that the other brings to the table… Being supported, challenged, and grown into your best person by great relationships will not undermine your success, only advance it. Being that kind of growth agent for others will only enhance their lives and yours. In the end, only Corner Four people are left standing. The others will fall, fail or fade.” – Dr Henry Cloud, The Power of the Other

Tim Urban’s Wait But Why has one of my favourite posts on friendship, the amazing 10 Types of Odd Friendships You’re Probably Part Of. It’s worth reading. A lot of it resonated with me.

When a friendship is both in Quadrant 1  of the graph [i.e. a trusting, loving, supportive relationship that you enjoy] and on Tier 1 [most important] of your mountain—that friendship is a rock in your life… Your rock friendships don’t warrant 2x the time you give to your other friends—they warrant 5 or 10x. And keep in mind that seeing one of them for an hour-long meal isn’t really enough—your rocks deserve serious, dedicated time so you can stay close.” – Tim Urban

I’ve been considering the notion of spending 5-10x time nurturing Tier 1/Quadrant 1 friendships and decreasing time spent with others.

I see the logic – that ultimately, only super close friendships matter.

Although, it’s sometimes hard to figure out who is worth the investment of time and effort.

Also, how many friends can be Tier 1/Quadrant 1 before the model becomes unsustainable?

I have a lot of Tier 2-3 friendships, not that many family type relationships, (despite becoming closer to many people over the last year or so).

What makes a good friendship?

Dr Henry Cloud talks about the importance of Corner Four relationships, real connections where “you can be your whole self, the real, authentic you, a relationship to which you can bring your heart, mind, soul and passion. Both parties to the relationship are wholly present, known, understood, and mutually invested. What each truly thinks, feels, believes, fears and needs can be shared safely. On the best teams, in business or in war, this is what happens. And in the best lives. No matter where you are or what obstacles you might be facing, you need your connections in order to win. They help you figure out where you are, where you need to go…That’s what it means when someone “has your back”.” “Corner Four relationships need to be nurtured and protected.”

I don’t think there’s a universal definition of a good friend. I think it varies from person to person. It’s based on who you are and what you want at that time in your life.

A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere.” – Emerson on the Two Pillars of Friendship

Having said that, Tim Urban brilliantly summarises what a good friend is not (here). He also suggests that best friends are people with whom you enjoy spending your time and feel comfortable with. People you find fun, and stimulating.  The best friendships have love as the core emotion, are positive, trusting, and supportive. You are both genuinely rooting for each other, and giving each other equal priority.

I like Mark Manson’s idea that true friends accept you for who you are, and that the friendship shouldn’t be reliant on your wealth, or career, or what you decide to do in life.

At some point, you grow out of this tit-for-tat approach to life. You start just enjoying people for who they are… But not everyone grows out of these conditional relationships. Many people, for whatever reason… continue to play the game well into adulthood. The manipulation gets more sophisticated but the same games are there. They never let go of the belief that love and acceptance are contingent on some benefit they’re providing to people, some condition that they must fulfill… The problem with conditional relationships is that they inherently prioritize something else above the relationship… These conditional relationships can get really fucked up on an emotional level. When our relationships are conditional, we don’t really have relationships at all….

The trick to “growing up” is to prioritize unconditional relationships, to learn how to appreciate someone despite their flaws, mistakes, bum ideas, and to judge a partner or a friend solely based on how they treat you, not based on how you benefit from them… Unconditional relationships are relationships where both people respect and support each other without any expectation of something in return. To put it another way, each person in the relationship is primarily valued for the relationship itself — the mutual empathy and support — not for their job, status, appearance, success or anything else…. Unconditional relationships are the only real relationships. They cannot be shaken by the ups and downs of life. They are not altered by superficial benefits and failures. If you and I have an unconditional friendship, it doesn’t matter if I lose my job and move to another country, or you get a sex change and start playing the banjo; you and I will continue to respect and support each other.” – Mark Manson, Maybe You Don’t Know What Love Is 

For me, a degree of reciprocity is essential. A friend of mine recently got upset about an old friend who started refusing to catch up with her. My mate kept contacting her friend, but kept receiving non-committal replies. It’s funny, because if that was in a romantic context, we’d be like, “Dude – have some self respect – he’s just not interested – let it go – move on“.

The real test of a Corner Four relationship is what happens when you choose a different path than the one your supportive person desires for you” – Dr Henry Cloud, The Power of the Other

Some friends of mine react weirdly to people who take life in a direction contrary to their own. I’ve never understood that, but can see how people take it personally – maybe it makes them question their own choices, or shows how different their lives are.

Another friendsuggested that a good test of friendship is what happens after you’ve caught up on what’s been going on in your lives. In his experience, things can be awkward when you realise you have nothing left to talk about.

I guess with most of my close friends there is common ground of some sort, be it similar values, interests or outlooks.

I live in a privileged liberal bubble with many like minded people.  But, there is value in hanging out with people from different backgrounds, and being exposed to different perspectives. Even when I disagree with friends, I’ve found that listening to well considered opposing views valuable in strengthening my own arguments, or changing my own points of view.

Letting go

I’ve definitely been guilty of maintaining friendships that should have been laid to rest a long time ago. Dr Henry Cloud calls these Corner 1-3 relationships i.e. relationships where you feel disconnected, or ones that have a negative effect, or a  seductively false “good” effect on you. Essentially, people you think you want in your life, but aren’t good for you.

Or, the historical connection where you’ve both changed, and now have little in common. You’re very different, and neither of you particularly enjoy spending time with together any more. If you met for the first time now, you wouldn’t be friends. Yet, because you have a shared history, you feel obliged to keep in touch and atill catch up with each other. (Tim Urban summarises it beautifully – check out the “Historical Friend” – #6).

Family often fall into this category.

Family is the one group that most of us choose to negotiate rather than “sort out of our lives.” Even if the polarizing politics of recent events has unmasked some core value differences between us and the people we love, severing that connection feels like the last resort—a consequence implemented only after vulnerable, tough conversations and boundary settings have failed entirely.” – Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness

Deciding to spend less time with someone is difficult and painful. But, life is short. There’s no point wasting time on people who don’t care about you, or people you don’t enjoy spending time with, or people who are not good for you.

It’s hard. You often still care about these people. Trouble is – maintaining space in your life for these relationships takes away time that could be better invested in good friends, or meeting new people.

Chances are – these relationships aren’t serving either of you in any constructive way.

I’m getting better at letting these go.

Is it possible to make good friends as we get older?

People complain about how it’s harder to make new friends as we age. It’s true – we don’t have the same amount of free time to meander as when we were young.

Adults have careers, responsibilities, and need to spend time with their partners, kids and ageing parents.

I still think it’s possible to cultivate close new friendships though. It comes down to the time you invest in them.

Where do friendships come from?


Bonds of trust are often born from sharing intense experiences. Maybe this is why I have good friends from travelling in remote parts of the world, and pulling all nighters on deals together.

It’s weird how some shared experiences engender an irrational sense of loyalty.  I haven’t seen my best friend from childhood since I was 7. Yet we’re still in touch, thanks to Facebook, and I’m pretty sure that I would still do anything for her.

Experiencing people in different environments is important.  It’s often when you move to a different work place that you figure out whether you’re really friends with your old colleagues.

“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… Emotional connection is what switches someone from an acquaintance to a friend.”Ben Casnocha on the Many Sides of Friendship

I guess that’s why off-sites are powerful. You get to see your colleagues in a different light, they’re relaxed and you can learn about them in a non-work context.

Proximity and Frequency

Friendships are formed in the environments you inhabit – your school, university, workplace, events and the extra-curricular activities you go to.

As children many of us didn’t have any choice over the schools we were sent to, or the people who would become our peers as a result. Maybe that’s why I have few close friends from school, or maybe it’s because we live no where near each other any more.

Proximity is a huge factor.

I think this was one of the main reasons that Andrew and I were so close to all of our Australian friends when they were here. We all lived close to each other, and caught up frequently. To a large extent we were each other’s family.

Being on the other side of the world, few of the Aussies had a ready made group of friends in the UK. Everyone was earning money, wanted to explore Europe, and enjoy themselves. No one was focused on their career or buying property. We travelled, hung out, went to gigs, shows, sporting events, wine tastings. They were good people and I miss them. We keep in touch, but it’s not the same when you’re on the other side of the world. (Even if we moved to Oz, they are still spread over three cities. It would be akin to living in London and having friends in France and Spain – hours apart).

To some extent, you can make up for the lack of proximity with frequent interactions – it takes seconds to send a short message to someone.

But there’s no denying that proximity is important. It’s much easier to catch up with people who live nearby. That was the norm years ago – now most people’s lives and friends are spread all over the world:

Bradley found that his great-grandfather’s entire life took place in a square of only 40 kilometers. His grandfather’s lifetime track was about 400 square kilometers; his father’s was about 4000 square kilometers, and his own extended all over the world, for a 40,000-kilometer square” – Julie Beck in The Atlantic.

As Tim Urban says when analysing how much time he has left with the people he loves most:

1) Living in the same place as the people you love matters. I probably have 10X the time left with the people who live in my city as I do with the people who live somewhere else.

2) Priorities matter. Your remaining face time with any person depends largely on where that person falls on your list of life priorities. Make sure this list is set by you—not by unconscious inertia.

3) Quality time matters. If you’re in your last 10% of time with someone you love, keep that fact in the front of your mind when you’re with them and treat that time as what it actually is: precious.”

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