As Brian and his wife wandered off toward the No. 2 train afterward, it crossed my mind that he was the kind of guy who might have ended up a groomsman at my wedding if we had met in college.
That was four years ago. We’ve seen each other four times since. We are “friends,” but not quite friends. We keep trying to get over the hump, but life gets in the way.
Our story is not unusual. In your 30s and 40s, plenty of new people enter your life, through work, children’s play dates and, of course, Facebook. But actual close friends — the kind you make in college, the kind you call in a crisis — those are in shorter supply.
As people approach midlife, the days of youthful exploration, when life felt like one big blind date, are fading. Schedules compress, priorities change and people often become pickier in what they want in their friends.
No matter how many friends you make, a sense of fatalism can creep in: the period for making B.F.F.’s, the way you did in your teens or early 20s, is pretty much over. It’s time to resign yourself to situational friends: K.O.F.’s (kind of friends) — for now…
As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other, said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college, she added.
1. Your time in fraternity basements was well spent. The same goes for the time you spent playing intramural sports, working on the school newspaper or just hanging with friends. Research tells us that one of the most important causal factors associated with happiness and well-being is your meaningful connections with other human beings. Look around today. Certainly one benchmark of your postgraduation success should be how many of these people are still your close friends in 10 or 20 years.
2. Some of your worst days lie ahead. Graduation is a happy day. But my job is to tell you that if you are going to do anything worthwhile, you will face periods of grinding self-doubt and failure. Be prepared to work through them. I’ll spare you my personal details, other than to say that one year after college graduation I had no job, less than $500 in assets, and I was living with an elderly retired couple. The only difference between when I graduated and today is that now no one can afford to retire.
Amitie qui se peut finir / Ne fut jamais bien commencee
(A friendship that can be ended / didn’t ever start)
~ Mellin de Saint-Gelais, Oeuvres Potiques
When the members of the class of 2010 entered business school, the economy was strong and their post-graduation ambitions could be limitless. Just a few weeks later, the economy went into a tailspin. They’ve spent the past two years recalibrating their worldview and their definition of success.
The students seem highly aware of how the world has changed (as the sampling of views in this article shows). In the spring, Harvard Business School’s graduating class asked HBS professor Clay Christensen to address them—but not on how to apply his principles and thinking to their post-HBS careers. The students wanted to know how to apply them to their personal lives…
Over the years I’ve watched the fates of my HBS classmates from 1979 unfold; I’ve seen more and more of them come to reunions unhappy, divorced, and alienated from their children. I can guarantee you that not a single one of them graduated with the deliberate strategy of getting divorced and raising children who would become estranged from them. And yet a shocking number of them implemented that strategy. The reason? They didn’t keep the purpose of their lives front and center as they decided how to spend their time, talents, and energy.
It’s quite startling that a significant fraction of the 900 students that HBS draws each year from the world’s best have given little thought to the purpose of their lives. I tell the students that HBS might be one of their last chances to reflect deeply on that question. If they think that they’ll have more time and energy to reflect later, they’re nuts, because life only gets more demanding: You take on a mortgage; you’re working 70 hours a week; you have a spouse and children.
For me, having a clear purpose in my life has been essential…
When I was young, I measured my life by how successful I would be on paper — Good schools, good career, etc. As I got older, my priorities changed. I realized how much more meaningful positive personal relationships were to my life — Particularly during the last 6 years, when I needed a supportive network the most. After I completed graduate school, I decided to focus my professional CV, like your HBS classmates. Unlike them, I chose to go down the career route unmarried and childless. I do not regret the latter decision, but I now find myself completely single and less connected to friends than I would like.
As Albert Schweitzer noted, “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.”
…I find the symptoms you describe, as a result of not focusing on a fulfilling measure of one’s life, to be prevalent in every socioeconomic bracket. As I write this, your article has garnered over 350 comments. The sentiments you express resonate with a large portion of the population. Yet, I will guess that more than half of us who nodded our heads in agreement with you will go back to our tunnel-visioned lives within 2 months. Like new year’s resolutions, we have the best intentions to change & we know it’s in our best interests, but…
“When people who have a high need for achievement—and that includes all Harvard Business School graduates—have an extra half hour of time or an extra ounce of energy, they’ll unconsciously allocate it to activities that yield the most tangible accomplishments. And our careers provide the most concrete evidence that we’re moving forward. You ship a product, finish a design, complete a presentation, close a sale, teach a class, publish a paper, get paid, get promoted. In contrast, investing time and energy in your relationship with your spouse and children typically doesn’t offer that same immediate sense of achievement. Kids misbehave every day. It’s really not until 20 years down the road that you can put your hands on your hips and say, “I raised a good son or a good daughter.” You can neglect your relationship with your spouse, and on a day-to-day basis, it doesn’t seem as if things are deteriorating. People who are driven to excel have this unconscious propensity to underinvest in their families and overinvest in their careers—even though intimate and loving relationships with their families are the most powerful and enduring source of happiness.”
Moreover, as an adult looking to forge new friendships outside of family, I discovered what others discovered before me: It’s much more difficult to make new friends after college. On top of this, there is a growing trend of transitory relationships — Platonic & romantic. No one wants to commit. To friendship. To marriage. Or even being punctual for dinner or returning a phone call. Unless of course, there is material or monetary benefits to be gained…