Growing up, one of my biggest recurring arguments with my dad went something like this:
Dad: "Your friends. You should make more of them. The ones you have are not diverse enough, they are all like you."
Me (sixteen years of age, arms crossed and teeth bared, like a dog protecting her pack): "I guess you wouldn’t understand the meaning of the word friend. Heaven forbid if I actually spend time with people I like and get along with."
The argument continued like a stage play, so familiar were the words and motions. My dad would make (what to me was) a horribly inconsiderate suggestion about meeting new people and expanding my horizons. Of course, me and my sixteen dramatic years took it as an attack. I'd scream that choosing friends wasn't like choosing a self-help book, where the only rule of thumb was is this going to make me better? Friendship was more than that, it was mystical and pure, a give-and-take of epic proportions that escaped any explanation to my clueless father. I’d always go to bed furious afterwards, my mind shrieking that my dad was wrong, wrong wrong, he who valued friendships so callously.
Friendship wasn’t an end, you see, it was a means. Friends were the invisible threads that tied you down and fastened you with an identity, gave you a place near the fire and a warm bowl of soup among a circle of kindred spirits. Friends kept you from drifting, lost among the wide-eyed stars of this empty and forlorn universe. Friends were your people, and you were theirs, and they sure as hell got you in a way your parents never would. Forcing a choice is dangerous. I was prepared to defend my friends to the death.
Then: college. Bam! So many past friendships faded like a tan, their memory growing ever paler. New ones sprouted up to take their place, coloring the walls of late night dorm rooms and pizza joints. After graduation, I joined a company for which the concept of friend was the basic building block, the atom on which we built everything else. The idea of friendship swirled all around me: why and how and who and most importantly—what did it matter?
It took me years to understand what my dad was saying. Oh, I don’t take him literally. I don’t approach making friends like a job search, checklist of attributes in hand, murmuring to myself if this or that person is diverse enough. To some degree friendship will always be like that familiar blanket, cozy and simple, no bells or whistles needed.
But my dad’s point is simply this: your friends—or more broadly, the people you spend time with—sway you like the sea, can push and pull you towards new and better directions. (Look out, though—they can also make you fat). In designer terms, if the world is one glossy, 7-billion pixel image, what color you are is likely the average of an 11x11 eyedropper sample of those around you.
And this is, for me, why college mattered. Not because of award-winning professors (whose lessons I often overslept) or the curriculum (easily replaced with reading the same books on your own) or the lovely sun-dappled campus (nice lawns and trees are not exclusive to academic institutions). A college is valuable for its people. And the people who bustled around me were mind-boggling, the way they started companies and contributed cutting-edge research and traveled to the far corners of the earth to seek problems and kindle solutions. The way they seemed to always skip three circles past their comfort zone, making Things That Are Hard look easy.
Not to say these things were easy, by any stretch. Still. Once you get to know them better, they don’t seem all that different from you. I mean, they laugh at the same jokes and have quirky parents and listen to the same music and occasionally lose their shit just like you do. And if they can do all these incredible things on top of that, why can't you? Hell, why don’t you? Get off your lazy ass and make something.
And that, I think, is exactly what my dad was trying to say. Your friends inspire like nobody else because they’re life-size, three-dimensional, utterly real. Not polished and flat like those famous people you read about in the news or see on TV, who wear their success like makeup. So. Put yourself in the hands of those who comfort and inspire. Join a company that’ll push your thinking because you’re not the smartest person in the room. Make your surroundings beautiful, the color you yourself want to be.
To all my friends who have inspired me in the past and present, who have snapped and drawn and written and cooked and built things so marvelous it leaves an imprint on my heart, who challenge their bodies and chase hobbies like shooting stars, who find the humor and wonder tucked inside every day’s pocket—Thank you. Thank you for being you.
Thank you for giving me the chance to be a little bit more like you.