3/ How to choose friends

This is the third post in a series about building an Intentional Community. If you are just joining us, you may want to start with the first post or look at the whole list of posts. But, like a properly baked soufflé, this post stands on its own.


Let’s say you are, like me, the peculiar sort of person who wants to rent a vacation house, leave your spouse behind, and spend a couple of your precious vacation days with a journal and some Post-It notes setting your goals for the year. Well, before you pack your suitcase, you are going to need a peculiar group of friends to join you on retreat.

I strongly recommend finding your group the way I found mine: My friend Josh called me one day. He asked if I wanted to join his group. I said yes. Then I went to their retreat.

Okay so I cheated a little. (A lot.) I didn't have to create a group from scratch, and creating the group is most definitely the hard part.

Groups are figments of imagination. It is not enough to find all the right people for your group sitting on the same bench. The group doesn’t exist even a little right up until you decide everyone on the bench is in a group. It’s an idea you made up about them. You should tell them.

But once you tell them, it becomes very real. Once they know they are in a group, they have something in common, which is of course the group! Starting a group is much harder than joining one because you have to get people to believe in a thing that wasn’t there before, and only once they believe it are they right.

Supposing that Josh has not called you yet, you will need to either (a) get Josh's number from me or else (b) form your own group. I have never formed a group like this before, and frankly it seems quite hard, but I have seen what works well for my Intentional Community. So, I have some strong advice.

In my job at Amazon (speaking of peculiar people) we have a specific way of giving advice, which is to write it down as tenets. Tenets are pithy, sometimes controversial, and useful for making decisions at scale. I love writing tenets. One thing about tenets, though, is that we always caveat them by saying “unless you know better ones.” Let’s be honest, you probably do.

So then, here are some…

Tenets for choosing a group of friends for your retreat (unless you know better ones)

1. Choose six, seven or eight people.

Why not five? For one thing, you need enough people to have a range of backgrounds, interests, skills, and values. (More on this later.) For another, a lot of the magic happens in the small side conversations of two or three people. That’s where your shared interests flourish and sub-group dynamics can be as weird as you are. A group of six gives you— um, hang on— 25 break-out sessions in two’s and three’s. (That’s 150 possible seating configurations, if you’re into combinatorics.)

Why not nine? Nine is the number where you can know each person deeply but let’s be honest probably don’t. Nine is where you feel like you have permission to disengage, hide in the crowd, perhaps not even show up and the group won’t mind. And clearly no one wants to be the ninth person to share their goals, after eight other brains and butts have gone numb.

Over the years our Intentional Community has been as small as seven and as large as ten. Right now we are seven, and I love our size. I feel close to everyone in the group. I don’t need notes to know each person’s goals and obstacles and how I can help. We have time at our retreat to share deeply each day and still have an early dinner.

Even so, I miss the three people who once made us a group of ten, and I would gladly grow our circle again for them.

2. Have something in common.

My group formed in business school. Everyone had a friend or two in common, a deep love of Ann Arbor, and that come-on-lets-change-the-world-faster nervous tick that MBA2’s often get. Business school was a great foundation for us, it turns out, because it had some very different people going through a common experience— two years of shared stories.

Your group might form in business school too, or in some other kind of grad school, or in college, or even in high school (you over-achiever). You might find kindred spirits among your friends at trivia night or the dog park.

Coworkers? Sure, but not if they are the sort of coworkers who make it hard to talk about your career openly.

Spouses? It can work, but it often doesn’t. In my limited experience it has worked for two people (one couple, two possible seating configurations). Unless you are them, let me try to talk you out of it in another post sometime.

You want to start with enough commonality to have a foundation of trust. When you first sit down and bare your soul, it is easiest to do so with people who are not complete strangers.

3. But don’t have too much in common.

There is nothing wrong with a guys’ weekend with your fraternity brothers, but this is not that weekend. Cast a wider net. Diversify.

There are so many vectors on which you can have a diverse group. Find people with different backgrounds, of different genders and races and cultures, with different interests and skills and hobbies and beliefs, in different careers, at different life stages.

But don’t over-plan it. Just start by drawing a big enough circle around you. Find at least some people with whom you would not otherwise have been friends. Perhaps daisy-chain your invitations— invite one person, and ask them to invite one person, and so on until you have a new group of best-friends-in-the-making.

What an amazing thing it is to be in a heterogenous group. I have learned about being a man from the women in my group, about dating from the married people, and about Amazon from the Googlers. These lessons come by example and by counterexample, by similarity and by contrast, by design and by accident. Like a room full of mirrors, the group helps me to see my whole self through their reflections and refractions.

4. Find nuts that are already cracked.

Vulnerability— or rather, willingness to be vulnerable— is the price of admission. You are creating a group that opens up about deeply personal stuff, internal monologue stuff, hopes and dreams and fears stuff. If just one person is closed off, it makes it harder for everyone else to open up.

And it’s fine not to be a vulnerable person! This group is not for everyone, not even for most. There are enough nuts in the world. Find the ones who are already cracked wide open.

5. Choose people who will contribute more than average.

The thing about creating this group is that once you’ve come together, every force in nature is trying to tear you apart. Gravity is pulling you down into the ground. Entropy is scrambling you every which way. You are decaying like an unstable isotope, and you’ll be lucky to last for half a half-life.

Here is what it looks like without all the metaphors: One person who says “count me in” for retreat will later say “no.” One won’t remember to say “no,” but just doesn’t come. One will have a last-minute work thing. The house will be charming and distracting, and the sun and the beach will call you away from your intentional conversations. There will be WiFi and 4G service. Your spouse will text and want to know where you put the paprika. It’s time to get started, but people are still eating lunch. Work is emailing. And who is supposed to start the next session? Pretty sure it’s not me.

So, how does your group avoid disappearing into the ether like one of those elements at the bottom of the periodic table that existed once for the briefest of moments before it became just a memory?

Choose people who feel like they want this to succeed more than you do and who will contribute more than they think have to. Choose people who will plan, organize, cook, clean, facilitate, adjust, note-take, time-keep, troop-rally, and self-assign all the above. Resist the urge to be the hero of your own group. Find people who will make this their own, who will constantly reinforce your group’s molecular bonds.

Said another way: no freeloaders.

Unless you know better ones?

So those are my tenets. What are yours?