Feeling Used? Good.

I use my friends.

I use every single one of them. I take advantage of them by convincing them to do work that benefits me. I leverage their skills to more quickly achieve my own goals. And if I can’t profit from a friendship, I end it. Don’t mistake this for a confession of guilt, however; effectively using people is a source of personal pride.

Friends exist to be used.

There aren’t many things we consider more sacred than the bonds of friendship. Buddies are at the heart of our best stories, from Shakespeare to Judd Apatow. When Dante laid out his nine infernal circles, deceit of a trusted friend had its special place at the deep, icy center of Hell. The perfidious are worse than the lustful, the greedy, the hypocritical and even the violent. And the greater the trust between betrayer and betrayed, the worse the crime. That’s why Judas Iscariot goes down as the worst of the worst in Dante’s universe, his head and back eternally racked by Satan himself. Not exactly prime real estate.

It’s no surprise that people have an immediate, knee-jerk reaction when I talk about the currency of friendship. We think of friendship as a selfless and noble thing, a magical equation that loses its luster the moment we try to analyze its inner workings. It’s like the observer effect in physics, wherein the act of measurement changes the phenomenon itself. Nature seems to tell us some things are better left mysterious.

I’m not satisfied with friendship being an untouchable mystery. Disregarding how I’m supposed to think about friendship has helped me develop a more honest and useful idea of the role it should play in my life.

Think of friendship as a corporation would. Friendship, like anything exchanged, should provide a known, consistent, measurable value. Each individual should bring his own skills and desires to a relationship, and from the moment in childhood when we discover what we provide to the people around us, we should develop and hone those skills. Remember the simple but fundamental “personality badges” we earn during our earliest days? The class clown who’s born the moment he awakens to the joy of making other kids laugh? The jock who discovers he can run faster than anyone else on the playground? From those formative days forward we should understand the skills we provide to the people around us, and we should develop those skills to the best of our abilities.

We should also get smart about how to communicate what we bring to the table and how we put those skills into action. It’s critical to make sure that our friends and the people around us understand where our qualities lie. To miss this opportunity is to set ourselves up for frustration — feeling that people simply do not understand who we are.

Like any smart businessman, I have a diverse portfolio of relationship assets. In other words, I have friends with all kinds of special interests: musicians, writers, developers, engineers, designers, and just about every skill set that I need to achieve my goals. I trust my friends to clearly communicate what they want to do with their time, and then I take advantage of them.

And because I want repeat business I also provide a return for my friends. For me that means always having interesting projects in the works and creating opportunities for people to push themselves. I have so many projects going at any given time that I’ve had to hire a personal project manager to ensure that my cohorts and I meet deadlines, recognize new opportunities and push content into the world. Wasting my friends’ valuable time is, to me, a cardinal sin worthy of Satan’s lashes.

As with a business, a friend should constantly innovate, grow, and recognize future opportunities to improve his bottom line. This doesn’t mean a friend should pretend to be something he is not — history is littered with corporations that went outside of their competency only to fail, and a few noteworthy examples that had grown unwieldy before refocusing and entering a period of extreme growth (for the latter, think Apple under Steve Jobs 2.0). In other words, if a company doesn’t constantly assess its competencies through a market lens it will inevitably fail. The same is true of friendship. Grow, change and bring new ideas into your relationships or risk losing the favor of those around you. Consider it an opportunity to better yourself at all times.

If you find that the friends around you aren’t providing the things you want, you need to look for new friends. This may sound harsh, but I see it as a matter of respect. In fact, I would go so far as to say a friendship where nobody is being used is an insult to both parties.

What do we mean when we say we’re getting used? In one sense, it means someone else profits from our actions. That may sound like a bad thing at first blush, but why should that be true? People strive to create value in most aspects of their lives. And if you’re smart, people should be using you to do something you already want to do.

My advice is to get used as much as possible. The onus is on you to make sure that the thing people are using you for is something that you profit from as well.

If you have the feeling that someone is using you and the result isn’t advancing your own goals, you can only blame yourself. You’re either not being clear enough about what you want from the friendship or you’re spending time with people who don’t understand what you’re trying to achieve. Both of these negative outcomes should be easy to discern and remedy.

Every moment that you’re not actively getting used or using someone else is a wasted opportunity. Get used as a writer, a musician, a designer. Get used as a developer. Whatever you want from life, make sure the people around you understand your goals and work hard to become the most attractive option when those people search for someone to take advantage of. Most importantly, once you have clarity of what gives you a sense of purpose, make sure you’ve hung out the right shingle and opened your door for business.

This is the first essay in a series of topics we’re exploring for a book tentatively titled, “Publicly Traded, Live a Life Worthy of Investment.” Sign up for the mailing list if you want to be notified of the next installment.