The Friendship Challenge

The Limits of Friendship” is primarily about the Dunbar number, and the article’s attendant Hacker News discussion evolved or devolved toward discussing friendship more generally (“Reading the comments, I’d say many members of HN should probably invest more time fostering friendships”). Both remind me of discussions with friends, about the nature of friendship, and how most people seem ill-prepared for social life after school.

In American and perhaps Western society as a whole like-minded people at similar life stages continuously mix together from age five up to at least age 18 and often well into the 20s through school. Then people often stop routinely mixing with new people, different people find themselves in different stages of life, and the friend machine often stops.* Yet it doesn’t have to, but making friends and meeting people becomes a skill more than a side effect of being.

A friend observed that I have a “gift” for talking to strangers, which would probably be a funny observation to my family or people who knew me in high school. Still I thought the comment was awesome because I’m quite the opposite: when I was a teenager I was pathologically shy for a lot of my life, and it’s taken a lot of effort to cultivate the ability to be social with strangers. I wrote to the friend that casually and regularly making friends is a learned behavior for me.

I used to never do it (flirting with women was also a learned behavior, as extensively and embarrassingly discussed here). Now that I do, however, I’ve noticed that people think I’m automatically good at it. A lot of things people now identify as characteristic Jake behaviors are really, really learned. I think that the temptation to see them as innate is attractive because it excuses us from doing the work necessary to cultivate and practice them.

I don’t want to be one of those people who hit 30 and are like, “Gee, I don’t have any friends anymore…” Part of the challenge comes from friendships being defined by time-of-life. Single people want to party and mingle with other single people. Couples (often) with couples, since single people can be threatening to relationship stability. Parents of young children rarely hit the bars at 10:00 p.m. on Thursday night.

Generalizations are obviously not universally applicable to all people all the time, but they exist for a reason. People with kids identify with other people with kids and so on. Parents talk about babysitting and their children’s shitting habits (I seriously hope to never do that). Your best friend at 20 might have nothing in common by 30 depending on when / where / how you evolve.

I see more and more lonely people who are like “Why am I lonely?!?” Let me be harsh for a moment and say they’re like fat people who are like, “Why am I fat?” and “I want to lose weight.” Some people have medical or medication issues, but for most the answers are straightforward: “Stop eating cookies and drinking soda and do some pushups and ride your bike instead of driving your car.” The response is usually, “I don’t have time blah blah blah.” Problems have solutions and there are many ways to falsely divide people into two groups, and one of those ways is between people who do the shit necessary to be effective and the ones who don’t.

Everything I have learned I feel like I have learned the hard way, through enormous amounts of error. That’s one reason I’m not too pissed about being told I’m a novice lifter at the gym. Chances are the trainer is right and I need to practice. Practice is everything. I suck at everything until I try, really hard and really repeatedly, to get better at it.

Friendship also isn’t quantifiable, which probably dissuades some high achievers who want everything measured in grades, dollars, or some other metric (that Facebook can be measured in this way may be one problem with it). There are still guides to becoming better at people. For example, How to Win Friends and Influence People is surprisingly good. I heard about it through reputation and assumed it would be stupid. I was wrong. Read it, annotate it, read it again in three months. There is a reason it has endured for (literally) generations—I think it first came out in the 1920s or 1930s—and that’s because its advice is timeless.

How to Be Polite” has one or two paragraphs that are brilliant (it also has some other paragraphs):

Here’s a polite person’s trick, one that has never failed me. I will share it with you because I like and respect you, and it is clear to me that you’ll know how to apply it wisely: When you are at a party and are thrust into conversation with someone, see how long you can hold off before talking about what they do for a living. And when that painful lull arrives, be the master of it. I have come to revel in that agonizing first pause, because I know that I can push a conversation through. Just ask the other person what they do, and right after they tell you, say: “Wow. That sounds hard.”

Because nearly everyone in the world believes their job to be difficult. I once went to a party and met a very beautiful woman whose job was to help celebrities wear Harry Winston jewelry. I could tell that she was disappointed to be introduced to this rumpled giant in an off-brand shirt, but when I told her that her job sounded difficult to me she brightened and spoke for 30 straight minutes about sapphires and Jessica Simpson. She kept touching me as she talked. I forgave her for that. I didn’t reveal a single detail about myself, including my name. Eventually someone pulled me back into the party. The celebrity jewelry coordinator smiled and grabbed my hand and said, “I like you!” She seemed so relieved to have unburdened herself. I counted it as a great accomplishment. Maybe a hundred times since I’ve said, “wow, that sounds hard” to a stranger, always to great effect. I stay home with my kids and have no life left to me, so take this party trick, my gift to you.

The resources are there. The challenge is implementation. Let me repeat myself: Making and keeping friends is a learned skill, which many of us never learn and some of us learn much later than we should.


* (Adolescence is hard because it scrambles all the rules and principles learn about friendship from approximately toddlerhood to say age 12. Tom Perrotta’s Election has a great line in which a character observes that sex habitually turns friends into strangers and strangers into friends. Francine Prose’s young adult novel Touch hits similar themes. It may be that many people are unhappy that we never really return to those pre-puberty rules and roles because our desires and incentives change, and we have powerful evolutionarily shaped drives to do certain things and behave in certain ways.)

Links: The mind-boggling cruelty of the drug war, changing your mind, status, love, social porn, and more

* If you read nothing else today read “Financial Hazards of the Fugitive Life, which concerns Alice Goffman’s brilliant book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City.

* Loving what I used to hate, note especially the section on weight lifting, and also this: “We don’t need to preserve our first opinions as if they are our pure, untarnished, true nature.” It’s good in combination with “Being wrong, and a partial list of ways I’ve been wrong.”

* “So You’re Not Desirable …:”

The old axiom says beauty is in the eye of the beholder. When it comes to initial impressions, this statement is not really true: Consensus about desirable qualities creates a gulf between the haves and have-nots. But the truth of this maxim increases over time: As people get to know each other, decreasing consensus and increasing uniqueness give everyone a fighting chance.

* Speculative but fits my experience: “Women Call Other Women ‘Sluts’ to Guard Their Social Standing.”

* Man claiming to have been an “All-Source Intelligence Analyst, with the BDE S2 shop” describes the Bowe Bergdahl incident in ways largely ignored in the rest of the media; I would not call this the final word.

* Another Redditor describes the breakdown of Venezuelan society.

* Sugar is incredibly, unbelievably bad for you; “The data says that the dose on average that is safe is six to nine teaspoons of added sugar per day. Currently, Americans are at 22 teaspoons of added sugar per day. That excess is driving obesity, diabetes, lipid problems, heart disease, cancer, dementia, fatty liver disease — virtually every chronic metabolic disease that you can think of is being driven by this excess of sugar.”

* “Social porn: why people are sharing their sex lives online.” (Maybe.)

* “Prisoners of Sex,” interesting on many levels including this mention of “the tension between our culture’s official attitude toward sex on the one hand and our actual patterns of sexual and romantic life on the other.” Also useful in the context of the link immediately above.

The Generals — Tom Ricks

The Generals has one of the best qualities a general nonfiction book can have: it’s about a specific topic that it covers well, but its lessons and ideas also transcend its topic and apply to many others. Let me explain. Take this section, about General Patton:*

Even now, more than six decades after his death, Patton remains one of our most remarkable generals. ‘You have no balance at all,’ Marshall’s wife once scolded the young Patton, correctly, years before World War II. Maj. Gen. Ernest Harmon, one of his peers, wrote that he was ‘strange, brilliant, moody.’ The blustery Patton behaved in ways that would have gotten other officers relieved, but he was kept on because he was seen, accurately, as a man of unusual flaws and exceptional strengths. Marshall concluded that Patton was both a buffoon and a natural and skillful fighter.

Knowledge, skill, and expertise in one domain don’t necessarily transfer to other domains. A brilliant physicist may be a terrible marriage therapist, and vice-versa. Someone who is a “buffoon” might also have a compensating skill that makes up for their possible deficits. Paul Graham implicitly writes about this in Is It Worth Being Wise?:

‘wise’ means one has a high average outcome across all situations, and ‘smart’ means one does spectacularly well in a few. [. . .] The distinction is similar to the rule that one should judge talent at its best and character at its worst. Except you judge intelligence at its best, and wisdom by its average. That’s how the two are related: they’re the two different senses in which the same curve can be high.

A lot of people seem to have trade-offs between peaks and averages. Steve Jobs comes to mind: Walter Isaacson’s biography is rife with examples of Jobs being wrong, cruel, and occasionally outright stupid. His lows were low. But he got big, important stuff right—and not just right, but very, spectacularly right. He found (or made) the right environment for his skills. It’s almost impossible to imagine Jobs being a good employee at, say, Wal-Mart, or any large company that values homogeneity over creativity.

It’s obviously possible to have high averages and high peaks, but that doesn’t appear to be common. Really spectacular peaks often come in unusual packages. Those unusual packages are often easy to dismiss by someone not paying attention.

Unfortunately, as Ricks points out, America since the Korean War hasn’t judged its generals by their peaks or their averages: in fact, we haven’t judged generals on their competence much at all. That’s a tremendous, underappreciated problem. In Ricks’ description, the generals cut from the Marshall style were primarily “team players” who needed to work effectively with others and defer to the group. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; as Ricks says:

Perhaps those who rose highest in World War II were organization men. But for the most part they were members of a successful organization, with the failures among them weeded out instead of coddled and covered up. That would not be in the case in our subsequent wars, in which it would be more difficult to know what victory looked like or even whether it was achievable.

Different time periods reward different forms of industrial organization. If World War II rewarded “organization men,” many of today’s organizations reward people who figure out the weaknesses of large organizations, and then offer alternatives. But that can’t happen in the military, where the closest analogue to startups might be defense contractors and private, Blackwater-style armies. Those, however, have their own problems.

There’s also an analogy to teaching: almost no public school teacher is fired, ever, for bad teaching. Not being able to fire transparently terrible teachers is an impediment to getting better teachers, as almost anyone who’s ever been in a public school knows.

Organizations also need to focus on making sure that they’re focused on their major purpose, not on primarily serving the interests of the people inside them:

Trying to be fair to officers can be lethal to the soldiers they lead on the battlefield. The Army was using the Korean War to give the staff officers of the earlier war ‘their chance’ to command in combat—with disastrous results. Well before Chosin, the Army had recognized that it had a problem with inexperienced combat leadership in the war.

The problem is “inexperienced combat leadership,” but the solutions became worse in some respects than the problem itself. Fairness to one group can mean extreme unfairness to others, who often have much less of a voice. No one speaks for the enlisted men who are led by incompetent generals. (No one speaks for those led by an incompetent president, either, but that’s a separate issue related to larger American society.)

Misaligning incentives creates a deeper sense of rot; Ricks says that generals, by the post-Korean-War era,

were acting less like stewards of their profession, answerable to the public, and more like keepers of a closed guild, answerable mainly to each other. Becoming a general was now akin to winning a tenured professorship, liable to be removed not for professional failure but only for embarrassing one’s institution with moral lapses.

Notice what this says about Ricks’s view of the university: by comparing one system that advances mediocrity with tenure, he implies that tenure advances mediocrity. He doesn’t go on to explain why he uses the metaphor, because he assumes that his readers already believe as much. But tenured professors aren’t putting their students in life-or-death situations, and students can choose to pick a different department or university. Service members can’t. During World War II, as Ricks says, the road to victory and home led through Berlin and Tokyo. In recent wars, the road to victory has been murkier, the politico-military establishment mostly hasn’t selected generals adept at operating in the murk. The consequences are clear.

The Generals is too detailed for people who aren’t deeply interested in military affairs and history. It probably isn’t detailed enough for those who are immersed.

But it’s also the best intellectual explanation of why one should be wary of enlisting in today’s American military: you might get killed by someone incompetent but unaccountable on the basis of performance. Contemporary generals who lose wars and cost soldiers their lives are fêted. They “retire” to lucrative consulting gigs with defense contractors and lobbying firms. The soldiers are disabled or dead. To me that argues against becoming a soldier or junior officer. In most businesses, if you think your boss is an asshat, you can quit and start a rival firm. In the military, obeying is the only option, and no one is making sure that your boss is actually good at his job.

EDIT: B.J. Khalifah has an interesting letter in The Atlantic:

Thomas Ricks overlooked something important. Sadly, nobody becomes a general (or equivalent) in the military until they have served for many years. Most colonels are 50 by the time they get promoted. Many younger officers have experience and drive; as a group, they adapt well. Older officers are more cautious, members of the “cover your ass and do not make waves” category. They know how to manipulate the good-old-boy game. The service should be, but is not, a strict meritocracy. In effect, it follows union-style rules of seniority and time in grade. From second lieutenant to first lieutenant to captain is automatic. Some lousy officers have made it past captain to become major by being on court-martial or combat duty when they are promoted. The rules are not negotiable.

This contrasts hugely with startup and good corporate cultures, which judge people almost purely on merit. Successful startups have famously been founded by 18 year olds. Even law firm partners can be promoted within as little of five years of hiring, while associates frustrated by a firm’s practices can start their own. The military apparently doesn’t do that, and I haven’t seen any evidence that 50-year-old generals will necessarily be better than 26-year-old (hypothetical) generals. Certainly among startups this isn’t true.

The comparison isn’t perfect—markets reward innovators for making things people want, and the military doesn’t have a clear feedback loop. But at the moment almost no one is even discussing the issue, or making the comparison.


* The movie Patton is also remarkably good, especially the speech at the beginning. Patton doesn’t have the American character down correctly—Americans don’t love the sting of battle unless we’re provoked—but the speech demonstrates a lot about the man doing the speaking.

The bit about loving a winner and not tolerating a loser is also fascinating in light of The Generals: we’ve tolerated a lot of losers, like Donald Rumsfeld and Tommy Franks, and sacked winners like Eric Shinseki.

%d bloggers like this: