My practical guide to building your tribe.
I am painfully introverted. I’m also a workaholic. I can go days, or even weeks, without talking with another person. I dislike being in large groups of people, and much prefer being with just one other person at a time. On the other hand, through the lens of hindsight, I now realize that one of the biggest factors that led to me quitting my successful engineering career in the late two-thousands, was my need for friendship.
Before leaving, I spent hours each week in meetings with my team of engineers, and with people from other departments and companies. I regularly had one-on-one meetings with the people who reported to me. What was missing was close friendship.
I left my engineering job to study for a PhD in Clinical Psychology at a graduate school that boasted a transformational educational model. The program was experiential, pragmatic, visceral, and challenging. After having studied postgraduate Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Stanford, this psychology program was not very academically challenging for me, but it was very emotionally challenging. Thousands of hours of my therapy work was scrutinized, while I was put through a psycho-emotional wringer. I paid attention to—and analyzed—my dreams and nightmares, my family dynamics, and my automatic reactions. The purpose was to bring awareness to as many of my blind-spots as possible, to make me into a clean and sharply honed psychotherapeutic tool, a mirror and a scalpel.
I did all of this with a team of brave people, who were also sometimes a little crazy. They were also literally geniuses. As part of my training to become a psychologist, I personally tested a sample of them using a multi-hour professional intelligence test; the ones I tested scored over 150 (99.96 percentile).
My small cohort started to bond at a retreat by the Pacific Ocean in Santa Cruz, California, where we drew and discussed timelines of our lives up to that point. We shared our most intimate secrets, and we learned to trust each other. The next morning, I waded into the ocean before breakfast, and was surrounded by dolphins. The woman running the retreat center told me that they had never seen dolphins come near the beach like that before. I used to think I was special, and I took it as a sign that I was on the right track.
Over the next three years, people dropped out of the two cohorts in my year, the two cohorts merged, and only a handful of us made it to our pre-doctoral internships. From my cohort, Jake and I went to the same two-year internship, and we had an overlapping year there. This meant that we spent many more hours together in supervision meetings, joking around in the intern office, or hiking together.
Out of my graduate school cohort, I made many new and close friends, and two particularly close friendships: Jake and Sam. At my internship, I also met Ian-Michael, who was only there for one of my years. These three men are like brothers to me. If all I got from my six years of graduate school, from all that time and money, was these three friendships, it would have been well worth it.
Jake and Sam are now Clinical Psychologists, licensed in California. They are both also psychology professors. They are now married; they have families. Jake started his own program in depth psychology, and Sam started a successful business providing professional mindfulness training. Ian-Michael went back to construction management, and oversaw the rebuild of a famous workshop retreat center on the Pacific Coast. These men are super-intelligent, highly-trained, accomplished, and responsible. They have mortgages. People rely on them. They are also my friends. When we are together, we are like children. We play like children. We are silly, and deep, and loving, and strong, and caring. We hike on trails. We wrestle. We howl at the moon. We hug. We cry.
After my pre-doctoral internship, I started a business with Jimmy, another good friend and member of my cohort. We made mobile apps. I worked on the back-end server, and he worked on the iOS and Android clients. For about three years, I worked remotely in cafes in towns with barely functioning internet. Between power outages and internet glitches, I pushed updates into the cloud, and debugged puzzling client-server interaction problems through instant messages with Jimmy, who is even more introverted than me.
In Costa Rica, in the mornings, I surfed the reliable head-high waves of Playa Carmen, and worked-out in the jungle on my gymnastic rings. After a day of problem-solving and coding in the bakery, I surfed again for an hour or so. It was amazing, and I would recommend it to anyone. I was also very lonely. Months of isolation can be good for productivity, but isolation is not sustainable.
I have now just about finished my PhD, ten years after starting. The rest of my cohort graduated years ago. Having made a lot of money through stock-options, I had the luxury of taking longer. As someone who seemed to achieve great things in short periods of time, I have felt embarrassed and even ashamed about how long this PhD has taken me. Many people struggle to complete a PhD, and there are some common reasons for it. One of the causes for me is that I get a lot of motivation from working with a team of people who are dependent on my progress. The only person depending on me completing my PhD is me.
I have also been recovering from a particularly painful divorce process, which began in 2003. I have been integrating, healing, and reorienting from that. Because I have a child from that marriage, the process has taken much longer than it would have otherwise. Again, I had the luxury of doing this my way, at my pace. I understand that many people find it much harder to get the time and space they need for this kind of self-development.
My current wife (Cindy) also helped me to realize that one of the main reasons I quit my job in 2007 and started this PhD process was to develop deep friendships. Now those friends have graduated and moved on. I am left behind with a PhD to complete, but without the motivating factor that originally drew me to that large project. It makes sense that I would feel stuck.
Over six months ago I started my lifestyle challenge. For each month, I have a grid which contains a column for each day, and a row for each lifestyle practice that I want to make into a habit. I have used this to develop and maintain habits of meditation, exercise, and diet, among many others. This process has made my life increasingly rich and fulfilling.
I spend a lot of time working from home, and I came to realize that one of the things missing from my life was regular social contact. So about four months ago, I started adding a row to my grids entitled “Contact Time.” The objective was to meet with at least one person per day, and write that person’s name on the grid. The contact could be in-person, on the phone, or via a service such a Skype. From looking at my grids on my wall, I can see that I’ve averaged more than one person every two days. This process has been very transformational for me. First I’m going to tell you about the benefits that I’ve experienced, and then I’ll give you some tips for how to make this work for yourself.
The benefits of building a tribe
Much higher social confidence
I had no idea that this was going to happen. I thought that I just could not get over my social awkwardness and shyness. What I’ve found is that I am generally much more confident and bold with other people. I know how to make a conversation with anyone. I used to feel really anxious before I met a new person, and now I feel completely calm and confident.
Increased social intelligence
I’m more attuned to the people I’m talking with. I’m better able to listen. I have an increased ability to create rapport with others, and to quickly create friendship, trust, and connection.
Better at interviewing
I’ve been going to job interviews, and my confidence and social intelligence have really shone. I am able to stay calm, build rapport, and use the excess capacity to present my best self. I’ve been particularly enjoying interviewing.
Feel more secure
I feel like I am surrounded by friends. I have close friends that I have recently communicated with around the globe who are a text or call away. They reach out to me and I reach out to them. I feel held, loved, supported, encouraged, and valued. I have my tribe, and it keeps growing.
People have my back
I don’t make friends so that people can help me, but I’ve found that when I do need help, people jump to action. In the past few months, I have reached out to friends for help, and got an immediate response and help.
Have places to stay
Again, I don’t make friends so that I can stay with them, but I have a lot of close friends in a lot of places, whom I would love to stay with, and who are excited to have me stay with them.
Value friendship more
I often used to prioritize getting things done over spending time with people. I used to love spending time with people, but I would often feel that I was wasting my time because I was not being productive. I have now spent so much time just hanging out with so many people that I understand the intrinsic value. I can easily now put down my work and go and hang out with a friend on the spur of the moment. Productivity can wait while I get my human need for connection met.
Paradoxically, because I actually need social contact to thrive as a human being, by getting enough social contact I am able to be more productive. I feel more inspired and energized. Additionally, my time spent with others actually operates as creative input, through ideas, joking, and play.
In our society, men are terribly isolated. Studies have shown that men in general have limited social contact, and it gets worse as they get older. This may be one reason that married men live a bit longer than single men. It may also be why men die younger than women on average. I believe that I will live a much longer life because I’m surrounded by friends.
Better intimate relationship
Many people spend too much time with their intimate partner. Spending time with friends gives both you and your intimate partner space. Friendships also take some of the emotional stress off the relationship; you’re not dependent only on each other.
Another side-effect is that I have friends in all walks of life, in all professions, in many different countries, with many different skills and perspectives. I can easily draw on this massive network of value, and I do it through friendship. I have come to realize that there is no connection stronger than friendship. Friendship is how you can really get shit done in the world.
This is one of the best investments
There is little more valuable in life than a close friend who has your back.
How to build your own tribe
I use my lifestyle challenge grid to track social contact on a daily basis. I write the person’s name on the grid.
Only count real contact
You must have a relatively substantial connection in order to count it. A text-based interaction on Facebook, email, or a messaging app doesn’t count. You have to see the other person’s eyes and spend at least 15 minutes, if not an hour, interacting with them. Telephone contact counts, but it’s not as ideal as seeing the other person.
Favor in-person contact
If I have a choice between meeting someone in person or seeing them on Skype, I will arrange to meet them in person. I will do this even if it means traveling for half-an-hour each way. Being in physical proximity with another human being is visceral and profound, even if you don’t hug them, which you should.
Make a list
I keep a google spreadsheet with a long list of names on it. These are people who I have thought about and want to spend time with. I periodically go through this list and pick a name from it. Then I reach out to that person. To some degree, I also keep track of when I reached out to people and when I last met with them.
Follow your intuition
As you develop your intuition about this, you’ll notice that you naturally find yourself wanting to reach out to certain people at certain times. Trust that. I have experienced thinking about meeting with people and then found out that they were thinking about me at the same time.
Touch and hug
Shake hands, hug, pat on the back, and play-wrestle. To the extent that you can be comfortable with it, physical contact sends an important message to your animal brain: you are alive, and other living things are with you.
Favor same sex friendships
I am a man. I generally hang out with other men. If you’re a woman, you probably should have a lot of female friends. I didn’t used to believe in the importance of this, but I have come to understand it. Your same-sex friends are your foundation. They’re not only human, like you, but they’re also the same sex as you. Another advantage of same-sex relationships (if you’re heterosexual) is that there is no sexual agenda.
Don’t have an agenda
You’re not trying to get something from the other person, or from the friendship. The purpose is simply to enjoy being with the other person. Don’t make it about networking, even if seems to be on the surface. Find the real, authentic person and be with them. Enjoy them.
You have to risk rejection to spend time with someone. You have to ask people. Get people’s phone numbers or emails and message them. You have to schedule things with people. Then when you’re with them, you need to be open about what you’re doing: “I just want to hang out with you and get to know you.”
When you want to schedule a meeting with someone, don’t ask, “Do you want to meet up?” or “Let’s meet up sometime!” Instead, be specific and own what you want, “I really want to meet with you, are you available on Tuesday afternoon?” This both an honest and flattering message, and it also proposes a specific plan, at least in terms of time.
You’re not going to spend time with anyone today unless you planned it last week. That means you have to always be planning ahead. Be always trying to fill your days for next week and the week after.
Space them out
I have a mental model of no more than one social contact per day. This means that when I reach out to someone, I pick the next available day when there is no existing social contact planned. Conversely, if someone reaches out to me, I do the same thing. This has a wonderful side-effect of creating a natural and healthy scarcity to your time. I’m often only available two to three weeks out.
Enjoy the anticipation
A great advantage of scheduling social time in the future is that you get to look forward to it. I can look at my calendar and I see these little nuggets of social goodness each day into the future.
Get in the flow
I have got into a natural rhythm. I meet with certain people at certain intervals. One friend I meet with every week, another every month. Some people I meet with regularly, but on a much more random schedule. Another amazing side-effect is that people reach out to me more than they used to. A lot of the time I don’t need to reach out any more. I get requests for contact on most days. This feels like a continuation of the flow that I started. My identity has changed: I am someone with many friends, who socializes a lot. Reality reflects that identity back to me.
Focus on one-on-one
I personally much prefer one-on-one interactions, rather than being in groups. When I meet with one other person, I can really focus on them and track them, myself, and the relationship between us. I can get to know them deeply. After a few hour-long meetings, these people become lifelong friends.
Be patient with awkwardness
Sometimes a person will ask me beforehand, “what would you like to talk about?” I say, “I don’t know, let’s see what comes up.” Sometimes a conversation will start awkwardly, in that case I talk about it: “I know that it seems strange to start a conversation like this when we hardly know each other, but in five minutes we won’t want to stop talking.”
Make it into a game. You can’t fail.
I challenge you to try this for three months. Aim to spend meaningful time with another person every day for the next three months. Track it and let me know how it goes.