We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men…
~ Herman Melville
The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers and cities; but to know someone who thinks and feels with us, and who, though distant, is close to us in spirit, this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden.
~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The connections we make to people throughout our lives are our doors into the world.
Depending on the nature of our connections, we can have many doors leading to interesting and exciting places, or we can have only a few doors, but all leading to places where we love to be and where we want to spend our time.
As we live our lives we will always interact with people. We make friends in school, we talk to neighbors, we work with people, and we develop relationships. Some of those relationships are perfunctory or just a matter of convenience; others are deep and long lasting.
Connections can be developed and maintained in an ad hoc way, or they can be based on our needs and desires. Do you find yourself spending time with people because of obligations or because these people make you happy? How we define our connections to people can help us get the most out of our relationships. And like any of the factors that define our lives, the more we understand our connections, the better we will be at making and maintaining those connections that are meaningful and helpful. Our connections to people can be quite different, but they probably fall into general categories.
I’ve thought a lot about my connections, and I have a list of people who have been significant in my life (yeah, I know: nerd alert). This list (actually, it’s a spreadsheet) also includes how I categorize these people. The categories have evolved over time, but here are the current ones:
- Colleagues: People I have worked with and who have influenced me professionally.
- Associates: People I have been involved with due to circumstances (such as coaching) and who have had an impact on me.
- Music associates: People who I’ve really connected with playing music.
- Teachers: People I have learned meaningful lessons from (not necessarily in a formal learning environment).
- Friends: People with whom I have chemistry and an emotional bond.
- Buddies: Friends with great chemistry (for example, a similar sense of humor).
- Close friends: Friends with whom I have a very close emotional bond (I have four)
Each of us has our own categories for how people fit in to our lives. Your list might only have two categories, or it might have twenty. In any case, having a list like this can help us sort out how to develop our connections so that they contribute to our lives in a beneficial way.
Another category that I keep on a different list (yeah, I know) is people who inspire me. The majority of people on this list are people I don’t know personally, but there is still a connection in that they influence me. They inspire me through their attitude or their accomplishments, or because we have a similar way of looking at the world. Of course, we can also be inspired by people who are part of our lives, but we don’t have to know someone to be inspired by them.
If we cultivate our relationships and are lucky, some of them may last a very long time. Those of us who are very lucky live out the rest of our lives with those we love at our sides. At the same time, we will have connections that don’t last, due to circumstances (for example, if we move), inattention, or natural separation as we evolve in different ways. This can be difficult, and there will be times when we feel lonely. Ultimately, we can’t count on long-term connections finishing the race with us.
So where does this leave us? We can let it get to us, we can get upset—or we can look at all the people we meet as potential connections. Some will last and some won’t. Sure, we can (and should) mourn the loss of our connections when they end (see Camelot), but at the same time, we should always be considering everyone we meet as a potential connection. This can ease the pain of connections lost and will lead to new connections, any of which could be a close friend. The more we practice making connections, the more it becomes second nature.
One way to think about this is to consider the following for everyone we come across:
- Size them up. Are they smart? Are they funny? Pay attention to them—to what they say, their worldview, their interests. Get to know them.
- Do they measure up? Think about the qualities that your good connections have. Does the person have these qualities?
- Be proactive. For those you meet who have potential, arrange to spend more time with them. Chat with them. Invite them over.
- Be ready to cut and run. Time is your most precious commodity. If the person does not have the qualities you like, there are plenty of people who do.
How often do we really pay attention to the people we meet? It may sound glib, but we can look at the people we meet like investments. Some are good and meet our needs in terms of return and risk, and some we pass on because they are not what we’re looking for. After we choose to invest (make a new friend), we pay attention to how our investment is doing (the state of the friendship). We may adjust the amount of money (time and attention) we invest according to our current needs. All the while we are on the lookout for other investment opportunities (new friends).
It’s important to nurture our relationships and resist spending time with people who don’t make us happy, make us laugh, make us think, or make us feel loved.
Think about the doors you have, and walk through only those doors that lead to places you want to go.