Friends with Benefits
The antidote to friendship is not more of it. It’s a better, richer and more demanding set of relationships.
STARTER // BY CORNELIUS MCGRATH & JIHAD ESMAIL

My dad said to me growing up: ‘When all is said and done, if you can count all your true friends, on one hand, you’re a lucky man.’ 
— Josh Charles.

We Are Our Friends

How often have you heard the phrase “you can count your true friends on one hand”? If you’re anything like us, you likely don’t have enough hands upon which to count. Friends, after all, are serious business. At least that’s what we’re taught.

People with good friends live longer. Friends give us meaning. A shared purpose. And if we’re lucky, a hell of a lot of great memories. We live in a world that continually reminds us that we are the sum of the five people we spend the most time with. Our parents lead that charge, forever curious to know who we’ll bring back home after school. As who we choose to spend time with is not only a reflection of who we are but also, more pertinently, a reflection of them.

Hence why there are steep societal pressures around the company we keep. Sometimes so insurmountably large that we make do with relationships that never truly served us in the first place. All for fear of the alternative: being alone. This pressure creates space for compromise to creep in. We start to turn a blind eye towards our friends because we’re petrified of what might happen if we tell others what we honestly think. As if losing that person will be the end of us altogether.

As two people who have lost more friendships than they’ve gained in the past year, we thought we’d pose a few of the questions at the top of our minds: is friendship all that it’s cracked up to be? Is it the North Star we should be chasing? And if we optimise for friends, will our lives be rich?

August 19th, 2020. An exchange between the authors; the seeds of this essay were planted.

Friend·ship /ˈfren(d)SHip/
A state of mutual trust and support

Friend /friend/
Attached to another by affection or esteem; A favoured companion.

Com·pan·ion
/kəmˈpanyən/
Employed to live with and serve another, one that keeps our company

The Friendship Spectrum

If you take anything away from these definitions, let it be that friendship sits on a broad spectrum. The word ‘friend’ is used almost carte blanche to explain 90% or more of our human interactions. Hence, why we, the authors, believe that we don’t know what friendship is. We just know how it feels.

That is part of friendship’s beauty. It’s hard to define yet so easily felt. Invisible to the naked eye. Something that transcends the physical realm to become a spiritual connection. Although that too is the source of its hurt and pain. Friendship’s invisibility makes it both easy to hide behind and cower to.

Regardless, friendship is a ridiculous thrill. Maybe the best rush we experience as human beings; banter flying back and forth, that feeling of somebody who just gets you, and having a mirror to see the best (and worst) of yourself. All the time, we hear: “I don’t know what I’d do without my friends.” Followed by: “chill, man, we’re just friends.”

Friendship is an ecstasy-driven tight rope upon which we’re expected to build our lives around. But why?  

2020 took our friends, family, and our social lives in bars, restaurants, and on summer holidays away for a while. But it can’t, nor will it ever take away our ability to build new relationships. 

We make friends because life is inherently lonely; we need information, comfort and some shared purpose. We long for connectivity. Hence, one of the most challenging parts of 2020 was the game it forced us to play on the friendship front.

Almost daily, we asked ourselves: what’s going to be taken away next? What part of our identity is going to be tested or crushed altogether? This game undoubtedly causes insurmountable pain, especially when it comes to death, job loss or social isolation. Studies show that Americans take eight times as long to get over a job loss as the death of a close family member. 

The best outcome of 2020, however, was that it also revealed what can’t be taken away from us. 2020 took our friends, family, and our social lives in bars, restaurants, and on summer holidays away for a while. But it can’t, nor will it ever take away our ability to build new relationships. 

There is a reach to our new world that far surpasses even the most expansive Rolodexes of pre-March 13th 2020 socialites. The pandemic underlined why our geography need not bind our curiosity, desires and friendships circles. We can speak to anybody, anytime, anyplace with a good internet connection in a single day. 

We now have an abundance of friendship options. But do we get better outcomes? 

Pictured: One of the authors, Cornelius McGrath, talking over brunch at Basic Kitchen. Charleston, SC.

We believe the answer to be no.

The fallacy of choice and the pressure our company faces are prominent drivers behind this thesis. However, it’s honestly difficult to believe anything else when the biggest killer of men in the United Kingdom is loneliness. That data point tells us everything you need to know about the state of relationships in a time where we’ve never been more connected. 

All that is to say: friendship as a construct isn’t enough. It’s too broad of a spectrum upon which nobody fits. And it’s seriously messing people up.

Pictured: Cornelius McGrath sharing his friendship thesis. Chicago, IL.

The antidote to our friendship crisis isn’t more of it. Nor is it greater connectivity sorry, Clubhouse. It’s a better, different and more demanding set of relationships where friendship is the floor, not the ceiling. We playfully call this friends with benefits. We believe it is what the world today needs if we want to be prosperous in and as a society. 

It’s in this friends with benefits reality that we, the authors, have been thriving in for the past half-decade. We aren’t friends in the traditional sense. Jihad is a Muslim from Youngstown, Ohio. Cornelius was raised Catholic and born in London. We didn’t grow up playing video games together, going to the same school or even speaking the same language at home. Our shared experience before the age of 23 was zero. 

Our work is what brought us together. It was the medium that enabled us to see how much we had in common – being outsiders, looking at the world differently, creators in disguise. Not to mention the one through which we could best express ourselves. We wouldn’t know what the other was thinking unless we worked. And yet we’re friends not because we work for the same company but because we create together. 

Now, ask yourself: do your working relationships mirror ours? And if not, why?

Brooks is brave enough to say what we’ve been too scared to admit: traditional work relationships lack the honesty we need for growth.

Arthur Brooks started to answer this question for himself last August. In his Atlantic Magazine column “How To Build a Great Life”, Brooks wrote a piece titled Bosses Can Be Lonely At The Top, where he talks first-hand about how it’s (almost) impossible to have real friends at work.

This is a man who has achieved a hell of a lot in a single lifetime, admitting that there is just too much at stake to have open, honest, approachable and altruistic relationships at work.

Brooks believes excellent relationships are the lifeblood of progress. However, he admits that his work relationships stopped way short of their ceiling. At the top of the work totem pole, Brooks got rewarded with roles that didn’t allow him to build the relationships that make us most human. Bait and switched?

How that is or has been the decades-old formula for ‘top performers’ we don’t know. But that is beside the point. Brooks is brave (and decorated) enough to say what we’ve been too scared to admit: traditional work relationships lack both honesty and edge we need for growth.

Instead of the up-and-down loyalty that runs from an individual to an institution, free agents practice a new side-to-side loyalty—a fierce allegiance to clients, colleagues, ex-colleagues, teams, professions, projects, and industries.

 

— Dan Pink

As Dan Pink noted almost 20 years ago in Free Agent Nation, loyalty flows horizontally, not vertically. People can no longer rely on their employers to introduce them to the individuals they need to meet. Nor can they have the vulnerable conversations required for professional or personal growth at work. The opportunity and responsibility for development lie today with our peers, not our bosses.

This is why so many modern-day mentorships fail to work. Mentors can only tell you what they did when they were in your position, which is a far less useful outlet when you found yourself living in situations nobody has been in before.

If work or mentorships won’t cut it, how can we solve this friend with benefits void?

Communities often have the answers we’re seeking because they are built on friends with benefits relationships.

Ironically, Brooks’ answer to this question is the same group this magazine spun out of and is named after. The Junto, founded in 1727, was Benjamin Franklin’s social-mutual improvement club. Franklin started The Junto at the ripe age of 21, upon his move from Boston to Philadelphia. The Junto began with 12 local tradesmen and lasted for 38 years. Members met every Friday evening, submitted essays to one another and engaged in Socratic dialogue around the day’s topics. 

We dissected what Franklin got so right about relationships at our last Junto retreat in December. The talk, titled Built To Last: Inside The Evergreen Communities That Made The World, examined The Junto’s success through the lens of some of the most potent communities to ever grace the world — The Saturday Club, Augusta National, The All-England Tennis Club, and the Inklings, to name but a few.

We felt these evergreen communities had the answers we were seeking around friendship because they were built on webs of friends with benefits relationships. The communities we studied lasted much longer than most friendships – oftentimes for hundreds of years – and were constructed among strangers of weak ties at best, creating ideas that dwarf what comes out of most friendships.

While each of the communities we studied existed in very different intellectual, geographical and historical periods, they all had a few common traits that we feel provide a tremendous foundation for a friend with benefits relationship.

Pictured: The Founding Junto members sharing ideas over a morning coffee. Austin, TX.

To start, every community had both shared purpose and shared participation. Purpose in that there was a particular thing that each community tackled (e.g. golf, tennis, ideas, fantasy). Participation in that everybody engaged in the same cadence and did the same things.

Second, every community had consistency in their meeting frequency, their “reps”. Most had set days, times and even places in which they met. For example, The Saturday Club met on the last Saturday of each month at a restaurant called Parker’s in Boston, MA. This shared participation created a code of ethics associated with each community, upon which members assimilated and aspired to uphold those standards. That is the filter through which new members were allowed to join and participate.

Finally, each community had a stringent set of intellectual assumptions – to pursue whatever they were doing, be it tennis, ideas, fantasy or golf, in its truest form. With this set of structural characteristics, it is no surprise (to us at least) that The Junto, The Saturday Club, The Inklings, the All England Tennis Club, and Augusta National have all had remarkable impacts on the world.

But more on that in a future column. 

People says friends and business don’t mix. We call bullsh*t.

So what about today? What happens if you can be more than friends in the modern world? We’d hesitate to guess more of the same. After all, history does repeat itself.

In fact, our stories are proof of what can happen when you create relationships with friendship as the floor, not the ceiling. Over two years have passed since we revived the Junto, for example. We’ve got seven founding members who meet once per month, submit essays to each other and gather in-person one per quarter in a different city in the United States for a weekend of conversation, laughter and reflection. We have another 50+ members worldwide who come to our retreats 4 times per year or attend one of our quarterly dinners or artist nights.

Much like the past, this cadence has led to a great deal of innovation. In 2020, our Junto birthed a modern-day university called Breakouts, a lifestyle fellowship called The School and this magazine, 1727. Our members either run healthy 6-to-7 figure lifestyle businesses or work at some of the best companies in the world. If this is our first two years, can you imagine what we will have created 38 years from now?

Friends, to us at least, are the people we create with.

People say friends and business don’t mix. We call bullsh*t. What doesn’t work is a relationship with friendship as the ceiling, as opposed to the floor. We’ve lost a lot of relationships this year in that category. But we’re better for it, which tells us that what we (and likely you) are chasing in our relationships is something a little different than what the zeitgeist prescribes.

Friends, to us at least, are the people we create with. Be that memories, ideas, babies or businesses. And the very best ones are quality collaborators, those who can help us choose what to focus on and make sure that we’re telling the right story to the right audience at the right time. 

Is it time to be friends with benefits? We’ll let you decide.

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