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To Avoid Loneliness, Focus on Connecting Instead of Impressing

The gist: If you want more and better relationships, focus more on connecting with people over everyday things and less on impressing them.


Let’s play a quick game. If I asked you which of these movies you’d rather see, how would you answer?

  1. Revenge Of The Dinosaurs (rated 4 stars by other viewers)
  2. Revenge Of The Head Lice (rated 2 stars by other viewers)

You’d probably choose the dino flick, right? I would.

Let’s add another layer. Now you’re the only one who knows about the dinosaur film and all your friends want to watch the lower-rated head lice movie. Which would you pick now?

If you’re like most people (myself included), Revenge Of The Dinosaurs just got a lot more intriguing 1. Higher rated and I’m the only one who gets to see it? Sign me up! Well, not so fast.

You may have a taste for adventure and unique experiences, but do you also want to build strong connections and friendships? If so, you might have made precisely the wrong choice according to relationship research out of Harvard.

If you’re the type of person who wants the best of both worlds—to lead a life of adventure and build meaningful connections with people—you might need to change how your approach.

Here’s what the research found along with my strategy for filling life with meaningful experiences and also building strong connections.

The Lonely Road of Adventure

In 2014, I finished running a marathon on every continent. It was quite the adventure, and I look back on it with a lot of pride and happy memories. But today, I rarely talk about it.

What I’ve learned is these experiences I chase are personally meaningful—and certainly worth sharing when someone wants to know—but not all that useful when it comes to connecting with people.

In fact, trying to force these unique experiences into my relationships can actually leave me feeling pretty lonely—like I’m the only one who really gets me.

That’s exactly what a study out of Harvard found, too. It posed the same scenario that I posed to you earlier2.

68 volunteers were instructed to watch a video, and half of them were told they were watching one rated higher than the movies others were watching. After watching, each person who saw the higher rated video discussed it with a group of others who watched the lower rated one.

Throughout the process, each person was asked, “How are you feeling right now?” As you can imagine, the volunteers initially felt really happy that they got to see a higher rated video than their counterparts. They saw it as a valuable, exclusive experience.

But that happiness quickly faded—reversed, actually—once they had to interact with others who’d only seen the lower rated picture. All of a sudden, they felt lonely and excluded. They struggled to talk with the others because they had nothing in common. Meanwhile, the others chatted away over their “lesser,” but shared, experience.

The 80/20 Rule of Building Connections

Today, I rarely talk about my adventures and big projects unless I’m specifically asked about them. When I meet someone new, rather than convey who I am through my travels or my projects, I try to find something very small, boring even, that we have in common and build from there.

It’s amazing the relationships you can start from a very small commonality. If you want to excel at building connections, you have to appreciate the less exclusive experiences we all share.

impressing-vs-connecting

You may not think the way your dog spins around before finding a spot to sit is as interesting as the eco-hang-gliding-over-Easter-Island excursion you went on last year, but when it comes to building connections, similarity is more important than trying to impress.

Most people spend 80% of their time trying to get people to notice them by showing off how different they are and 20% trying to find something in common once they have some attention.

What you should really be doing, though, is spending 80% of your time finding common ground with people you want to get to know, and 20% of your time falling back on those unique things that set you apart.

Connection First: Why Everyone Loves Warren Buffet

None of this is to say you should give up on adventure if you want to build relationships. Quite the opposite! Those unique experiences are what set you apart from everyone else and make you a valuable connection. Just flip the way you share that part of your life.

This is why everyone loves people like Warren Buffet.

He’s one of the richest people in the world, but he dresses casually, lives in a modest hometw in Omaha, and drives older cars he buys on sale. It doesn’t matter how many billions of dollars he has—that’s a guy you could sit down to dinner with and actually enjoy a conversation. You can see straight away that you have something in common.

Of course, you wouldn’t want to be best friends with just anyone like that. People find Buffet uniquely valuable because of what he’s accomplished. But they like him and want to be around him because they can see parts of themselves in him. That probably wouldn’t be the case if he opened every conversation with “Hi, I’m the richest man in the world.”

Compare that to another business titan I’m casually familiar with in my own town. He’s shockingly wealthy, too. But he talks down to everyone, doesn’t remember you even if he’s met you a dozen times, and divorced his wife to marry one of his 25-year-old employees.

He’s not exactly a joy to be around.

Focus on Making People Care

Go on and live your adventurous life. Build your projects. Do epic things. It’ll leave you with a lifetime of happy memories and a sense of accomplishment.

But don’t forget the connections you make along the way will be just as important—even critical in helping you achieve all the big things you have planned. If you want to build those connections and make them strong, the first thing you have to do is show people why they should care about you and want to help.

That means finding something in common, like how Scrabble is your favorite board game, and you should totally get together and play some time.

Footnotes

  1. Hat tip to Pacific Standard Magazine for this example.
  2. Source: The Unforeseen Costs Of Extraordinary Experience