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Friday, March 28, 2008

How to Get a Life

by Brad Bollenbach, March-9-2008

Kids Watching TV

You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.

– Dale Carnegie

Positive relationships are the foundation of an interesting life.

Regular readers of my blog know that I advocate talking to strangers as a fantastic way of shaking up reality. But that’s not the whole story. If your interactional energy is misspent, you can end up in a repetitive cycle of drive-by friendships, random sexual adventures that are as fun as they are meaningless, and a general sense of wondering why you seem to always end up back where you started.

Making your own introductions is a life-changing force. But how do you channel this bravado into building relationships that last? How do you find friends that will raise the ceiling of your potential rather than criticize you for your passions? How do you meet girls that belong in your world and not just in your bedroom?

How do you get a life?

Love Being Alone

The prerequisite to building a healthy social life is, ironically, being comfortable by yourself. If you’re starting from zero, the reasons for this are obvious: you don’t have much choice. If you have a few friends but find that they drag you down, withdrawing from that crowd and starting anew will probably require staying in more frequently. Also, being too desperate for the company of others will hinder authentic interaction. You’ll be more worried about external validation instead of just letting it flow and being open to discovering connections.

Appreciating aloneness starts by consciously acknowledging the freedom it brings. When you enjoy your own company you can be flexible about who you choose to hang with, instead of letting the ego’s fear of being alone suck you into social scenes you don’t really like.

It also helps to have interests that can be pursued on your own. I’m fortunate to have many: reading, writing, cooking, software development, and online poker, among others. I’m just as happy staying in as going out, as long as I keep a good balance between the two. You can even use your alone time to apply the ideas in this article to help build your social life.

Start With Who You Already Know

Getting a life means becoming a person who initiates interactions, instead of always waiting for others to make the first move. A great place to start is with the people you already know. Most of us can probably think of one or more people that we’re horrible at keeping in touch with. These might be former acquaintances, people you met while travelling, someone you enjoyed working with in the past, old friends, or even current friends. When making this list, reach as far back into your past as you can, as long as you keep finding examples of people you wish you’d stayed in touch with.

Then contact them. I prefer email, especially when it’s someone I haven’t talked to in a while. If you don’t have the person’s email address, try Google. Alternatively, you might have a mutual friend who can put you in touch.

I did this several weeks ago. It was easy for me to think of many people with whom I’m horrible at keeping in touch. I ended up sending over a dozen emails to former coworkers I enjoyed working with, friends in other cities, and even local buddies who I don’t talk to nearly enough, often because I rely on them to always ping me.

I got responses from all but two people. I ended up going for lunch with one girl I’d never socialized with outside of a party setting. I reconnected with a former boss of mine from Quebec City who travels to Montreal frequently, and plan to have lunch with him next time he’s in town. And I reestablished contact with some friends I was starting to lose touch with.

The ROI on this simple gesture made me wonder: Why the fuck haven’t I been doing this all along?

Generosity Is Golden

It’s one thing to take the social initiative with people you already know, but what about with someone you’ve never met?

Sometimes I’ll get an email from a fellow blogger who wants to “network” with me. This is the greasiest way to introduce yourself to anyone. When making a new connection, start with generosity. Focus on how you can help the other person get where they’re going. This is an idea I got from Keith Ferrazzi’s excellent book, Never Eat Alone.

Do you have information that may interest them? Do you know someone whom they could benefit from knowing too? Can you volunteer to help their cause?

For example, I recently moved into a coworking space in Montreal called Station C. It’s a group of independent consultants and entrepreneurs who don’t like working from home. I think Patrick and Dan have done a fantastic job setting it up. It’s an amazing workspace with a great mix of people.

One of the first things I did when I moved in was volunteer to help build the office’s scheduling application. I have a lot of respect for the project and, now that I’m involved as a member, it can only be a good use of my time to make it even better. I also introduced myself to most people in the office early on and asked them to show me what they were working on. I wanted to get a sense of what skills they had and consider ways in which I could give them more work. In showing my own interest, I found others naturally reciprocating. I’ve already been getting work offered in my direction.

One of the best investments you can make in yourself is to take a genuine interest in other people.

User Groups

The best places to plant the seeds that will improve your social life are user groups. A “user group” might be a professional association, a political party, an orchestra, a yoga class, or any other gathering of people who have a common passion.

To start down this road, make a list of keywords for everything you enjoy and every issue that matters to you. For example, mine looks like:

  • personal growth
  • spirituality
  • private health care in canada
  • cooking
  • longboarding
  • grassroots geek conferences
  • design
  • usability
  • eco-friendly housing
  • etc.

Do a complete brain dump. If you haven’t got at least 50 lines of output, you aren’t trying hard enough. When finished, head to Meetup.com and see what you can find. Alternatively, add the name of your city to each line and you’ve got a Google search query. This will help you find local user groups, bloggers, discussion forums, businesses, and other organizations related to these topics.

What if you can’t find a group that fits your needs? Organize it. This is exactly how I started a personal growth group in Montreal. The downside of being an organizer is that it takes a little more time and energy. The upside is everything else.

Finding a great group of people that like what you like may require some detective work, but it’s worth it. A shared interest is the active ingredient in building positive relationships.

Don’t Limit Yourself

When I was doing my 30-day trial on learning to cook, I took inspiration from Laura Calder’s show French Food at Home. I think she has a unique charm and her enthusiasm for cooking is contagious.

Then I thought: Why not email her?

So I did. And she replied.

Next thing you know, we’re exchanging email about The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle, spirituality, and general thoughts on the art of happiness.

Don’t limit yourself. Take a look at your bookshelf, for example, and ask yourself: Which of these authors might I like to get to know? Email them. Authors in particular seem to have more easily accessible email addresses than other public figures. It’s unlikely that you’ll meet or even get a personal response from most of the people you contact this way, but it’s still fun to make a connection with someone that inspires you.

I’ve turned this last one into a 30-day trial. Every day I email one person I want to know more about, whom I might normally consider out of reach. I find some of the most fun 30-day trials are the ones related to meeting new people. If you feel like you could use some help in the social arena, why not make now the time you choose to break out of your bubble?

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