Outside the Friend-crush

October 29, 2014

{% previous comfort-zones %}


An ex-girlfriend of mine once told a story about how she thought a woman in her German class was pretty cool. She went up to this colleague and opened with,

“Hi. I’ve got a friend-crush on you.”

The rest, as they say, is history.


I bet I can surprise you.

Think about how many people there are out there, in this wild world of ours. Every one of those people is a potential friend, yet most of them aren’t. Why not?

Well the real reason is that Dunbar’s number exists. You only have the cognitive machinery capable of maintaining social relationships with approximately 150 people. Well, that’s crummy.

So a better question is: why are you friends with the people you are friends with? Spoiler: the answer probably isn’t because they’re the most amazing people you’ve ever found.

The answer is because they were in physical proximity to you for an extended period of time. Look at the number of people you are friends with; I’ll bet dollars to donuts that the majority of them were originally your neighbors, coworkers or friends-of-friends. People you had an excuse to spend time with.

Not actually because they’re the best people you’ve found.


Plato wrote that “similarity begets friendship”. That’s true, but only after you’ve selected for people you’d have an opportunity to evaluate their similarities to yourself. The primary conditional is that you have spent time together.

If this were an important part to my philosophy, I’d probably coin a cool phrase about it or something. Maybe “proximity begets friendship”. But it’s not, so I guess we can skip that part.



“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” - Jim Rohn

Who is Jim Rohn, you might be wondering? That’s a fantastic question! I’m not entirely sure myself, but I really like this quote. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find any research that he might have been citing, but it seems like the kind of thing that could be true: if you spent most of your time with five mathematicians, it would be pretty impressive if you didn’t pick up some math skills by osmosis. If you are always the stupidest person in the room, over time you will get smarter. Easy.

Having assumed this quote be true, last spring I did something about it. I made a conscious effort to be more strategic about whom I spent time with. The preparation for this was rather staggering; I realized I had lots of friends, but very few quality friends. Most could be better described as “drinking buddies”, even if we didn’t drink together. The point was, most of my friends and I had a defined activity that we would do with one another. Our friendship revolved around an activity, and never seemed to expand outside of that.

Instead, I went through my list of friends (on Facebook), and started culling people whose company I didn’t enjoy, or whom I didn’t expect to be useful to me going forwards. It’s cold and calculating, but think about what such a cull does: it gets rid of useless people that you don’t like. When phrased like that…

With the useless, unlikeable ones out of the way, I turned to making more strategic friends. It was in the same gist as my ex-girlfriend, though not in so many words. Usually it went something like this:

“Hi! You seem like a really cool person and I’d like to be better friends.”

I had my reservations about whether or not this would work, but in the spirit of comfort zone expansion, I went for it anyway. And I was surprised. Most people were genuinely delighted, and it signaled to them that I, someone who was willing to break social conventions in order to further my goals, was likely someone with whom it was also worth being friends.

My life got significantly better after having made these changes. All of a sudden I found myself craving social interaction, because hanging out with my new friends was amazing. We’d work on projects together. We would talk about fascinating topics and teach one another things. We would build a better future.

I don’t know how well this generalizes; maybe you and your friends already do these things. What I do know, however, is that just like comfort zones, you can only do better by expanding your friend circle.


Years ago, my friend Jonathan, when asked to tell me something he thought I should know, replied “blues dancing is not about the moves”. I’ve been pondering what he meant by that ever since, and I think I might have just figured it out.

This post is not really about friendships, nor is the last one really about comfort zones. They’re both shadows on the cave wall, projected by something more Platonic, something more beautiful and ineffably abstract. We started there because it’s easier to see what the underlying shape is, given more dots to connect.

While having a strategic group of friends is amazing, and expanding your comfort zone likely to improve your life, both of these concepts are just the shadows of something much bigger. Neither is actually the point.

The point is sublime and hard to nail down, but as a first articulation, it’s roughly: you are not so special. I don’t mean that personally. I’m not so special either. Nobody is, and that’s kind of the point.

The reason that comfort zone expansion can improve your life is that you are not so special. The reason that your friend group isn’t optimal is because you are not so special. Being not so special means that you are subject to each and every problem to which you see other people falling victim.

Don’t think of yourself as a special little snowflake. Think of yourself as another undistinguished cog in the machine. As humans, we are unconsciously biased towards privileging ourselves by virtue of being ourselves.

By way of an example: assume you have an incredibly important 5,000 word essay due in a month. It is likely to be the sole determining factor on whether or not you continue in your career. How soon before the deadline will you have it done by? How soon will everyone else?

If you are like most people, your answers will be “well before the deadline” and “the night before”, respectively. One of these answers is well calibrated: most people will finish the essay the night before. Yourself included.

This is what I mean by privileging yourself. By default, we assume that we are better, smarter and more effective than other people. Nobody thinks they’re a bad driver.

Comfort zone expansion and making strategic friendships are amazing examples of this. Not because they’re particularly novel ideas – pretty much everyone agrees that other people would benefit from doing these things – but because nobody makes the connection that they personally will also benefit from doing these things.

Humans, huh?


Don’t despair! Luckily, we don’t have to be slaves to our biases, and this is an especially easy one to get around. The solution is adopting a policy like so:

When making decisions, don’t do what would work best for you. Do what would work best for people like you.

In the literature this is known as reference class forecasting or taking the outside view. Along the same line, our default, foolhardy methods are taking the inside view. These are named as such because you need to look outside yourself to get the right answer.

That’s it. That’s the whole solution to a huge number of problems in life. Don’t follow your intuitions when the decision concerns you, because you’re probably going to be wrong about it. Don’t take it badly though, this happens to everyone.

What matters is what you choose to do about it.


Addendum: This principle sounds simple, but this is a pretty hard thing to do reliably. Case in point: I realized as soon as I finished writing this article that by the outside view, I should get someone to proofread it before publishing it. I’ve been blogging for years, and I’ve watched other people ask for proofreading, but I’ve never done it myself.

Progress. Slowly, but surely.

And that’s what counts. Progress.