Why do you have friends?
It’s a simple question with pretty complicated answers.
Humans are quite unique in that we maintain relationships with other humans without any sexual or reproductive motives. My best friend is another straight dude and I can honestly say that I don’t plan on having a kid with him (at least any time soon).
You and another individual basically agree: Okay, we’re going to spend time together, have conversations, and drink Coronas until this stops working out.
If I asked you to go down the line and explain in detail why you’re close to each one of your friends, you’d probably say things like:
- “I can talk to them about anything.”
- “They make me laugh hysterically.”
- “I can be 100% my true self when I’m with them.”
- “We have fruitful conversations.”
- “They have always been there for me when I’ve needed them.”
These are all lovely sentiments. But they can all be summed up into one overarching theme:
Each of your friends provide you some sort of value.
Some might be uncomfortable at the thought of friendship being a transactional ordeal. But in this article, we’ll:
- Explore the various types of value friends can provide.
- Brainstorm ways you can exchange value with your friends effectively.
- Discover how these exchanges don’t take away from a friendship, but instead make them 10 times stronger.
Now, my friend (get it?), let’s get into it.
What’s in it for me?
In the field of positive psychology, experts define four major forms of support — in other words, value — one can derive from others.
Let’s go through them one by one.
1. Emotional support
Probably the most popular one.
Folks who provide emotional support offer empathy, trust, concern, and acceptance. These are the people you can open up to without feeling judged or scorned. They are the friends you call without hesitation when something serious happens in your life.
I’m lucky to have several friends whom I can talk to about anything, but the truth is that there are only one or two with whom I feel comfortable explicitly pouring my heart out. In these friendships, there is a profound willingness to go out of my way to express myself, highlighting the special emotional support I get from these select few comrades.
There have been multiple occasions in the past decade where I’ve called my best bud immediately after an emotionally taxing event — when I’ve needed to make a huge life decision or I’ve felt utterly depressed.
I would call and the first thing I would say was, “Hey. Something just happened and I have to get it all out. Can I just start talking and see where it goes?”
After this, he’s never said anything other than, “Of course. What’s going on, man?”
It’s crazy how even over the phone, you can feel when someone is truly listening to you or not.
When shit hits the fan — you break up with your partner, get laid off, or are just going through an awful time — who do you pick up the phone to talk to? Who do you know will listen to your troubles and validate your emotions without question? Who is genuinely interested in what you’re going through?
That’s your emotional support.
2. Informational support
These are the friends who provide you with useful information: advice, guidance, and suggestions.
When I need relationship advice, I talk to my mom. When I need logistical advice, I call my dad. When I feel stuck in running my business, I chat with my buddy who’s the CEO of his own company.
If emotional support is when someone wants to hear what you have to say, informational support is when you want to hear what they have to say.
In your projects, your relationships, your health…who do you go to for tips and tricks? Who’s your mentor? Who do you trust to ‘show you the way?’
That’s your informational support.
3. Instrumental support
Instrumental support is more tangible than either emotional or informational support.
It consists of direct ways in which people help you: financial assistance, fixing a broken object, or providing any other material good or service.
My mom has done my taxes for me. My family has lent me money. My buddy has fixed bugs in my computer.
What tasks or activities do you find burdensome or annoying? Who do you reach out to to ease the load of those burdens for you?
That’s your instrumental support.
The fun one.
These are the individuals you legitimately enjoy spending time with. Your drinking buddies. The ones you tell stories and laugh your ass off with.
Who makes you smile? Who do you always have a great time with?
That’s your…well, you get it.
Putting them together
As you read through these, names and faces likely popped into your head of friends who fit each description.
You probably noticed you have friends who fall into more than one category. But you may have also highlighted the fact that some friends have a specific place or “job” in your life.
I have folks I party with, friends I have political debates with, and buddies I do jiu jitsu with. Of course there’s some overlap, but in general, we tend to do different things with different people.
Every single person has their own unique personality, interests, sense of humor, and opinions. That means we interact with everyone in different ways.
Think about your closest friends.
You don’t act the exact same way with any of them. You naturally make adjustments depending on who you’re talking to. Subtle as it may be, you’re constantly recalibrating your interactions:
- The jokes you tell
- Topics of discussion
- Activities you take part in
- How open you are
- How formal or informal you act
It sounds counterintuitive, but even though we consistently change the character we’re playing, we’re still being ourselves.
How strange would it be if you acted 100% the same with every single person in your life? I’d lose some friends if I did that.
All of this is to say that we consciously or unconsciously understand that people are wildly different. Since that’s the case, we can only surmise that people each bring various things to the table.
Certain people are just naturally better at letting loose and having a good time. Others have a proclivity for being there for those they love. We all have conflicting strengths and weaknesses when it comes to the types of support we can provide.
It’s helpful to recognize which of your friends deliver you which kind of support.
You wouldn’t have much fun if you only had emotionally supportive friends. You’d feel slightly empty if you only had fun-loving friends.
It’s healthiest to have a group at your disposal who provide you an aggregate of each.
Finally, don’t forget to reflect on yourself.
What kind of support are you good at giving? What value do you give naturally? What feels less natural?
For me, informational support comes more quickly than emotional support. I’m much more likely to give advice than to be a shoulder to cry on.
Sometimes this gets me in trouble. Sometimes it’s exactly what the person needs.
How to ‘exchange’ value with your friends in a non-robotic way
A new way to think about networking
When you hear the term networking, you might picture a cocktail party with people in suits handing out business cards.
But here’s the actual definition:
A supportive system of sharing information and services among individuals and groups that have a common interest.
Meeting new people and expanding your circle is a fun and healthy thing to do. But to fulfill this definition of networking, you needn’t look further than the people you already have access to.
A phrase that I remind myself of often: Look closely at what’s in front of you.
Take what you thought about in the last section and go a bit deeper.
What specific skills do your friends have that you’re interested in? How could they help you? How could you help them?
Answering these questions will help you collaborate with the people you care about in ways you probably didn’t imagine.
Build your team
In the past year, I’ve exchanged coaching sessions, money, and other simple resources for a number of services from my friends. Here they are:
- Business consulting from my CEO friend. He has become my entrepreneurship mentor and we have weekly calls to discuss ideas and strategies.
- Personalized workouts from my boxer friend. He holds pads for me and helps me work on my agility and footwork as he trains to become a personal trainer.
- Content writing gigs from my friends who run a design studio.
- Podcast editing from my audio engineer friend. He does it professionally and saves me hours of tedious work each week.
- Proofreading and editing from my writer friend. She has edited the very words you’re reading. I send her every major piece I write and she makes it so I don’t sound like a (complete) idiot.
- Chess practice with my buddy. We meet once a week to play chess and analyze his games. He gets chess lessons and I get a pupil to help me articulate chess tactics and concepts.
- Financial advising from my friend who’s a…financial advisor. He gives me actionable advice on saving and investing.
- Nutrition and weight lifting plans from my fitness coach buddy. He’s helping me have a stress-free relationship with food.
When I think about any one of these individual “agreements,” it just feels like a fun thing I’m doing with my friend.
But when I put them all together in a list, I go, Oh shit. I have a team!
What about you? What kind of team would you want? Who do you know that can fill a slot?
It’s much easier to exercise when you have a gym buddy to go with consistently. Starting a side hustle is way less daunting if you have a trust-worthy entrepreneur guiding you along the way.
Again, what are your friends good at and what are you good at? How can you share your skills so everyone is getting something out of the exchange?
Everyone has obligations and a fairly busy schedule. I was nervous to ask certain friends for their time because I didn’t want to waste it. But I quickly discovered two facts:
- Your friends are likely going to be pumped, not annoyed, to share their interests with you.
- If you’re giving them value in return, it never feels like wasted time.
We’re going to end by diving into that second truth.
The professional strengthens the personal
Accidentally becoming best friends
The CEO buddy I mentioned earlier is basically the reason I was able to start my own freelancing business.
Our regular calls allowed me to slowly get a feel for making business decisions. Taking action became easier. But something else started happening as well.
He and I were becoming much closer.
We have been good friends since our freshman year of high school. Any time we were together we had plenty to talk and laugh about. But now we had something more: a common goal.
Not only are we now working on similar projects, doing similar work. We’re also more invested in each other’s success than ever before.
What were meant to be 20-minute chats would turn into three-hour-long conversations about business and life.
At first, I got nervous. I thought, Does he only enjoy talking to me so much because we now have this shared interest?
Then I chuckled and realized, Well, isn’t that what friendship is in the first place? Being into the same things and having values that align?
Setting up a value exchange with a friend can sound like you’re robotizing something that’s meant to be personal and casual. But it’s really just a delightful way to maintain dynamic and healthy relationships, and stay in touch.
Which brings me to my final point.
A hack for keeping in contact
Earlier, I listed all the value exchanges my friends and I have been conducting. One of my favorite benefits from this practice is that it saves a ridiculous amount of time and anxiety in trying to stay in touch with all the people I care about.
As we get older, we become more career-focused, we start families, and it gets easier and easier to let keeping in touch fall to the wayside.
But with a value exchange, you’re killing four birds with one stone:
- You’re getting value
- They’re getting value
- You both naturally stay in touch
- You both experience the joy of intentional collaboration
Not only has this past year been the most productive year of my life, but I’ve also never felt so close to the friends I share my life with.
Work and play don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Look at who is standing right in front of you. Give them a call. Offer a value exchange.
Build your team. Then use them.