Cultivating genuine friendships in Silicon Valley

Bo Ren
Bo Ren
May 5, 2015 · 6 min read

I want genuine friendships, not leveragable connections.

This post is personal. Friendships are personal. Work is personal. When work and friendships bleed together in this city I can’t help but question what is real and what is pretend.

A weird thing happened to me a year ago. I quit my startup job and my world went quiet, real quiet. For once in my life since moving to San Francisco, I didn’t have a title next to my name. When I went to see my mentor Sarah Tavel at Pinterest, I put “Self” under employment in the NDA.

It was weird. There was a void. I felt like I lost a piece of my identity. I also lost a group of my friends or people who I thought were “friends.”

There goes a saying in Chinese that my dad used to repeat often in my childhood. “True friends are people who show up during hardships. Everyone wants to be your friend when things are going well.”

My dad’s ruthless practicality and survivalist immigrant mentality instilled in me the expectation and basic creed that true friends are ones who stick around during the good times and bad.

My newfound lack of title, job, and the prestige that come with them in my life winnowed the real friends from the pretend friends just like separating wheat from the chaff. Funny how major life events add brutal clarity to our lives. I am writing this because I feel disillusioned, hurt, and bitter because now that life is on the uptick everyone is coming out of the woodwork. A part of my mind thinks “where were you when I needed you?! Where were you during my darkest times?”

This post is not meant to throw people under the bus or preach about high moral standards. I am calling out an insidious force and social phenomenon that happens when someone goes from a nobody to a somebody thanks to a job title in this city.

The Valley is populated with smart, bleary-eyed, ambitious, and passionate people. For a group of 20 somethings at the peak of our lives and libido, we work crazy hours, sacrifice sleep, and neglect relationships and friendships to pursue our careers. After making hard tradeoffs, it’s easy to get caught up in work and you become work when every waking hour is spent trying to will something in existence.

Willing something from nothing is hard work and takes incredible devotion, emotional toil, and even hair loss.

So I blurred my identity in with what I do.

So I surrounded myself with like-minded individuals who shared common interests and fervor.

So I met new people in “work contexts” at networking events, happy hour, and online via Twitter, LinkedIn, Quora, and Medium.

So I started to identify myself as “Bo, the product manager from Company X” and not “Bo, the anxious, inquisitive thinker/ eclectic identity that amounts more than a work title”.

So I began rolling with a crowd that mistook prestige, status, brand recognition, retweets, and LinkedIn endorsements for real human connection and true friendships.

What we forget is a chief factor of how friendships evolve is determined by the context in which we meet and introduce ourselves. We make a first impression in 1/10 of a second so imagine making an impression of someone in the context of work — that sets the entire tone of your future relationships. That entire relationship is predicated on the shared commonality in work.

How do you expect someone to be there during emotional, hard times, when you question everything about your existence if they only see you as a uni-faceted person?

This is a treatise to myself to invest and nurture real friendships. Life does a funny thing to us. Life drops unfortuate events that are blessings in disguise. These events are stress tests on ourselves, our friendship, and our character, and other’s characters.

True character shows when someone loses all their worldly possessions, when someone hears something they don’t want to hear, when someone loses their identity pegged to a job.

I want to start nurturing true friendships. I want to separate the loose ties from the true friendships. Loose ties are great for finding new jobs, apartment, and serendipitous opportunities. Separate from loose ties, I want to build a intimate circle that I can always lean on instead of a sea of followers or acquaintances.

How to separate loose ties from genuine friendships. What that means is doing the following things:

  1. Delineate my mental friends list of real friends from loose ties. No need to sever ties completely and indulge in black and white thinking. Just making a mental note to self.
  2. Stop introducing myself as what I do. Stop making the association between my job and my name. I don’t mention where I work anymore when introducing myself to new friends at non-work events anymore. I almost want to introduce myself with“Hi, my name is Bo. I want to learn more about you and explore a genuine connection, not based on what you do” without making a social faux pas.
  3. Don’t mistake online connections as friendship. Josh Elman said that the nature of “following” and “friending” are fundamentally different. Don’t confound the two. Friending is an invitation of someone into your world, privy into something you don’t share with everyone. Following is more of a passive absorption of your public-facing content. One has intimacy, the other one has immediacy.
  4. Stay true, stay genuine, not jaded or disillusioned. I’m still struggling with this one. I believe that everyone is special. I believe that everyone has a story to tell. I genuinely believe most people have an interest in meeting you first and associating work second. It just so happens that we confound work with who we are in this city, which causes us to mistake friendships for followers lists, and work connections for genuine connections.
  5. Create your tribe: value depth over breadth. Surround yourself by a select few who are close to you. Have weekly check-ins with your best friend, maintain long distance besties, and work hard to bridge the gap between time and distance with those select few. Keep in mind that loose ties will help you find new jobs and investment opportunities but not fill your emotional well.
  6. Say “No” more often. I struggle with this the most. I have always been a people pleaser. “Yes” comes way more naturally than “No” for me. But I have found strength and solace in “No.” Saying “No” to people and events that are fillers will ultimately protect your long term happiness. Know when to be firm and how to say “No” tactfully. Saying “no” surrounds yourself with people who inspire you, believe in you, and will support you.

At the end of the day, like all matters of the heart, you know it when you find it. I know a genuine connection, a true friendship when I see it. I can feel it. And things take time. The arch of a friendship is time tested with peaks and valleys.

If you are willing to join me in the valley, I am ready to call you a true friend. I will follow you into your valley too. See you in the Valley. Pun intended.

Thanks to Ashley Dotterweich

    Bo Ren

    Written by

    Bo Ren

    Serving founders @samsungnext, writer, advisor

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