Discover more from Simon’s Newsletter
Friends From First Principles
Throughout my life, friends were always an unintentional byproduct. I would bump into someone at a few parties, spend a few days living with them, or take a common class, and all of a sudden I had made a new “friend”.
In times of loneliness, my panacea was to go out more, cross my fingers, and hope I would get carried by the current into making more friends. That was as far as my intentionality went; I gave no thought to alternative approaches.
However, the best interventions for making friends can have orders of magnitude better results. In order to discover these maximally effective interventions, I decided to rethink friendship from first principles.
Like in all problem solving, you need to start with a clear formulation of the problem. The desire for friendship stems from different problems for everyone, but here is my attempt at a broad categorization:
loneliness (you don’t have that many friends)
boredom (your friends aren’t doing enough things to satisfy you)
lack of diversity (your friends are all doing the same thing that you’re getting tired of, e.g. crypto, rock climbing, etc…)
high friction social life (your friends don’t invite you out much so you constantly have to reach out)
emotion bottling (different from loneliness because you can still have friends, but you can’t talk to them about what you want to talk to)
Once you know what problem you want to solve with friendship, the next step is to spend your time on the things most likely to generate the types of friends you’re looking for.
Regardless of the category, all good friendships have at least these factors in common:
Repeated interactions (physical interactions work better, but online ones can work too)
Ease of communication (you don’t have to filter yourself too much around them)
Both people get value (the value can take on many forms: enjoying each other’s company, having fun, learning new things, working through problems, etc…)
So if you’re considering going to an event to make friends, the important factors to consider are
How many future interactions will this event generate
How approachable are the people
What is the typical ease of communication
How much value will you get from the average person in the event
We can model the effects of these factors on the expected number of friends with the following formula
Where 0≤α≤1 is the approachability factor of the situation, 0≤Q≤1 is the quality of the interactions, N is the total number of people, I is the number of expected future interactions, 0≤C_c≤1 is the communication compatibility factor, and 0≤V_c≤1 is the value compatibility factor.
I pretty much eyeballed this formula to capture the following ideas:
strongly diminishing returns from adding new people (shown by log_2(N))
you start getting the most value after 4+ future interactions (shown by 1/(1+e^(−(1/2)I+2)))
diminishing returns (w.r.t. number of people) for chances to find someone compatible communication-wise (shown by 1−1/(N/2+1)C_c)
diminishing returns (w.r.t. number of people) for chances to find someone compatible values-wise (shown by 1−1/(N/2+1)V_c)
Here are the surfaces corresponding to N=4,8,16,100:
You can see you get strong diminishing returns after 10+ interactions. If you already have 10+ future interactions at an event, it starts makes sense to increase the number of people at the event.
Let’s sanity check what the formula gives in different scenarios. I created a google sheet for different scenarios and filled it with approximate values for each factor. Keep in mind that these values are unique to me, and even unique to each type of sub-event. For example, I’ve stayed at coliving houses that are as big as 30 people (but most of them have been around ~15).
Also remember E[friends] is meant to be proportional to the result, not equivalent. In reality, you should probably multiply the Result column by 3-4.
College clubs come out on top, and clubbing comes last. In my experience, although I did make a lot of friends from college clubs, most of them drifted apart after I left college.
Try making a copy of the sheet and filling it out with your own values!
Each factor in the equation is not set in stone per event. You can modify some of them through simple tweaks of your actions, but others require more significant lifestyle change.
You can overcome the approachability barrier by inserting yourself into more conversations. Be confident in yourself, don’t just hang around your friends! Here are some simple things you can say to join a group that work better than expected:
“Mind if I join you?”
“Hey I’m <name>”
“How long have you been doing/going to X?”
You can increase expected future interactions by schedules repeating calls with them, or just suggesting to hang out.
“Hey, I really enjoyed talking with you at X! I’m going to Y, do you want to come?”
“How's it been? Are you free <date> to catch up?”
Another method to boost future interactions is creating group chats. I think this requires a certain level of pre-established friendships—people need to be comfortable expressing themselves to everyone in the group. Once you have that, as well as a critical mass of people, they help keep friendships going for a long time!
Theoretically, you can up your communication compatibility with other people by being more tolerant and understanding. I’m not sure what the best way of doing that would be, but meditation sounds helpful.
Raise the quality of interactions by making an active effort in conversation to find what the other person is interested in. https://www.benkuhn.net/listen/ is a great piece on listening well.
Number of People
Boost the number of people at an event by inviting your friends and telling them to bring friends of friends. Also share on social media!
Finally, you can provide more value to people and vice versaif the life you lead is diverse. Some areas where people typically provide value:
Thanks for reading my blog! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.