July 21, 2021

Smiley Poswolsky | Friendship in The Age of Loneliness

Smiley Poswolsky | Friendship in The Age of Loneliness

Smiley Poswolsky says the average American hasn't made a new friend in the last five years. We discuss why loneliness is a growing epidemic and how we can combat it by connecting with others. Smiley offers practical habits and playful reminders on...

Smiley Poswolsky says the average American hasn't made a new friend in the last five years. We discuss why loneliness is a growing epidemic and how we can combat it by connecting with others. Smiley offers practical habits and playful reminders on how to create meaningful connections, make new friends, and deepen relationships.


Smiley Poswolsky is the author of Friendship in The Age of Loneliness, available now | https://smileyposwolsky.com



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Smiley Poswolskyk


Smiley Poswolsky: for millennials and gen Z and just frankly, employees in general, one of the biggest conflicts and crises that is emerging is the loneliness epidemic. Is people finding this disconnection, not just when they're a young person growing up or in, in elementary school or high school or college, but in adulthood and started writing a little bit about my own experience with loneliness as someone who's, a pretty extroverted person.

Smiley Poswolsky: My nickname is smiley. I obviously love people. I'm very socially engaged. And I'm like, if I'm feeling lonely, as smiley as someone who meets people as a job than other people probably are too. And you start to look at the data and you're like, oh yes, I'm not alone. Nearly two thirds of Americans are lonely.

Smiley Poswolsky: 70% of millennials, 80% of gen Z, the average American hasn't made a new friend in the last five years. Many people have zero friends at work zero, and we only spend 4% of our time with our friends. This is a problem.

Srini: I'm serine route. And this is the unmistakable creative podcast where you get a window into the stories and insights of the most innovative and creative minds who started movements, built thriving businesses, written best-selling books, and created insanely interesting art for more check out our 500 episode archive.

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Srini: Smiley. Welcome to the unmistakable. Creative. Thanks so much for taking the time to join us.

Smiley Poswolsky: Thanks so much for having me. It's good to be here.

Srini: Yeah, it is my pleasure to have your you're actually back here for a second time. And anytime we have somebody back for a second time, it's usually a Testament to what a great guest they were the first time.

Srini: So no pressure at all. But given the subject matter of your book friendship and the age of loneliness, I thought it would start with a question that I thought was highly relevant and that is what social group were you a part of in high school. And what impact did that end up having on where you've ended up,

Smiley Poswolsky: In your life?

Smiley Poswolsky: Great question. And very personal to me I felt like a little bit of an outsider in high school. I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I went to a pretty big urban public high school, 2000 kids and definitely felt pretty left out. And it was actually my cross-country team and track team were actually found the first, my first taste of kind of being part of something that, that belonging.

Smiley Poswolsky: So I went out for sports to play sports. Early freshman year. I was never going to play football. I'm a pretty small dude. Our soccer team was like the best in the state, so I wasn't going to make the soccer. So went out for cross country, not knowing what the hell it was.

Smiley Poswolsky: And basically for those that don't know, you just go run, three miles, five miles, 10 miles on Sundays. That's all cross country is so we're running a hill workout a couple of weeks into practice, which is just running up and down the hill over and over again. And I'm running up and down the Hills, smiling, just yeah, this is great.

Smiley Poswolsky: I grew up in Cambridge, which is outside of Boston. So my coach has this kind of hard-nosed Boston guy. I used to be a runner himself. And he's what the hell? Oh, you doing smiling kid, stop my Ellen stop. Hugans stop. You can kid that plugin. And right after that, the team nicknamed me smiley and that was my nickname.

Smiley Poswolsky: For the team and also in high school. And then that kind of nickname stuck through college and into my twenties and thirties, but it was really the first time I felt like, oh, I can be a dork and kind of nerdy, but also cool. I also can have friends. I also have a sense of purpose. Like I was one of the slowest kids on the team, but I actually became a captain my senior year.

Smiley Poswolsky: I made the varsity team and was the team morale, I do the pump-up speeches before a meet being like, all right, we got this, that kind of th the team mascot, so to speak. So that was actually really my home. That's the group that I felt like I was part of in high school.

Smiley Poswolsky: Cross country for the, if you're running every day keeps you, you can't really go party. You can't go go smoke or go drink a lot. Cause you have to go run or you have a race on the weekend. So it actually, it was really a big part of what I think keeping me healthy and successful in high school.

Smiley Poswolsky: And I'm really grateful for that experience. Actually, my track coaches, I still consider like mentors to this day.

Srini: What influence that I'm having on your friendships later in your life?

Smiley Poswolsky: Yeah, I think that's a great question. I think I learned at a young age that you don't need to fit in with everyone.

Smiley Poswolsky: But you need a couple close friends. So I think that often we think of, friendship or connection as being cool. And I definitely wasn't cool as a kid, I was very friendly. I was very social. But I definitely felt left out of a lot of, the cool groups in elementary school and even in high school, but really all it, all you need is a several friends to be like, okay, these are my people.

Smiley Poswolsky: You just need to find, I call them believers, like people that are going to be in your corner, people that are gonna hold you accountable that have your back, that you want to see. And it just takes a few, I think if all of us out there were, instead of trying to, make hundreds of connections or get all these fans or followers, and we just focused on a few people in our life we'd be a lot better off, we're not taught that it's about more and more connect.

Smiley Poswolsky: But actually there are a lot of the research shows that you actually can't even maintain that man social relationships. Dunbar's number shows that, P the average human can really only maintain social ties with 150 people and close relationships with about 10 to 15 people in their lives beyond family.

Smiley Poswolsky: And yet we're living in this landscape where people have, thousands and tens of thousands or millions of followers. And that's supposed to be the metric that we're measuring our social lives on, but it's actually completely the opposite. It's about a couple of close connections of people that are going to be there for you.

Smiley Poswolsky: When you're down, when you're sick, they're going to help you get a job. If you lose your job, they're going to help you grow your business that are going to actually really go to bat for you. Yeah.

Srini: I think that you, something that's really interesting that you're searching for this sense of belonging, particularly at a time when you are incredibly insecure.

Srini: Much like yourself. I was far from cool in high school. I was a band geek to add a layer on top of that. I moved right after my freshman year, which makes it even harder to make friends. I remember asking Lydia denworth about this. I said, what impact does that end up having on your friendships?

Srini: You said, oh, that absolutely is hugely influential. The fact that your parents would disrupt, your high school experience. Like my sister has very close friends from high school and I have one who coincidentally is my, my closest friend. But we didn't become friends till 20 years after we graduated.

Srini: So you know what I wonder. Yeah. I think that there are a lot of people who go through high school, just feeling like they never fit in and that they're never going to find their people. And they don't in a lot of cases. I think that you're lucky to have found that. So I guess the question I would say is, give parents who are listening to this, who have kids who feel like they're not fitting in how do you instill in a kid who's incredibly insecure and desperate to fit in the value of actually standing out?

Smiley Poswolsky: Yeah. I think first and foremost, I would say just reassure them that they're not alone that it's going to be okay, it's going to get better and that, high school and kind of adolescents can suck for most people. I would always think of a lot of the people that I remember being so cool.

Smiley Poswolsky: When I was a kid, the people that would make fun of other people are not doing that interesting stuff right now. And all of the people that they made fun of are like amazing jurors are in theater or writers or creatives, or have cool jobs. All the people that get made fun of for being different, for being unique for wearing, funky clothes or being themselves are actually live amazing lives now.

Smiley Poswolsky: But, in seventh grade, that's, those are the people that get picked on. So just the kind of sense of, Hey, it's going to get better. You're not you're, but to be yourself I think is so important right now we're seeing kind of skyrocketing rates of teen anxiety, teen depression, even teen suicide, which is really alarming.

Smiley Poswolsky: The teenage suicide rate is I think tripled between 2007 and 2017. And a lot of that has to do with Bullying and social media pressure and young people really feeling left out and feeling like they don't have someone to turn to or a place to turn to. And I think I think the pressures on young people are even more alarming now than they were for you or I growing up because of social media.

Smiley Poswolsky: I'm so glad that we didn't have that, it's harder to make friends and just get invited to, to hang out with people. And then in back in the day, and now it's like all these paps and everyone's, DM-ing each other and Snapchat and Tik TOK and Instagram, and I don't even know how young people do it.

Srini: So I'm curious for you personally, what is one of the experiences that you remember from adolescence, particularly when it came to social groups that made you feel the most insecure?

Smiley Poswolsky: Oh, that's a great question. I I remember in high school getting made fun of, for doing the work for, like you didn't, it'd be like people would come and be like, you didn't do the readings.

Smiley Poswolsky: I'd be like, yeah, I did the reading. We're reading invisible man by Ralph Ellison. It's a dope book. Like you should fucking read it, what are you doing? Read the book. It's one of the best books ever written. And it's make you understand the world we live in today more. And, but I felt this pressure, but no, I didn't do you know oh yeah, I didn't do it.

Smiley Poswolsky: Nah, I didn't do the P that's this kind of like attitude around not taking academics seriously. I remember that kind of from a pretty early age, a lot of pressure around you didn't do it. Did you know did you do the essay? Did you do the work? Or can I that kind of thing.

Smiley Poswolsky: And then it was actually only college into college. I went to Wesleyan university, which is a really great liberal arts school where I. Met other people. I realized that it was cool to be smart. Like I can actually it was cool. It's oh, your paper's awesome. Like I want to study with let's go to the library together.

Smiley Poswolsky: And that girls would talk to me and be more interested in me because I was smarter because I did the reading. I was like, this is amazing. Life is so cool. I can be myself and actually shine, but I didn't feel that way often. Growing up, I felt like, oh, there were a few people that, we're always doing the work and getting a grades, but they were made fun of, and that was the norm was to disk school and not be into school.

Smiley Poswolsky: But I really love school. I, I I remember that, but again, a lot of those people that were the people getting made fun of for doing the work are now doing really interesting things and are really smart and have found their way. So again, to all the young people out there and the parents listening courage that, like just be like, yeah, find the other people that are, you can all, I think that this holds true, no matter what generation you're going to, you're not alone.

Smiley Poswolsky: There's someone out there that is feeling the same way about about this as you find them. Or has similar interests or is going through similar things. Like it may be two of you or three of you in, in, in the crew, but that's enough.

Srini: Yeah. It's funny because I don't think I ever felt insecure about doing work or being smart, but you grew up as an Indian immigrant in a small Texas town.

Srini: There's plenty to be insecure about, when my parents couldn't afford nice clothes or shoes, when everybody starts buying like air Jordans and stuff like that. We had rich kids at our school who literally would use baby Jordans as key chains. It was ridiculous. And I still remember I would feel incredibly insecure about the way that I was dressed because my clothes weren't as nice as everybody else.

Smiley Poswolsky: Yeah. I I remember that there were a couple of us that would, there were a couple of kids. I had a couple of friends that we would just wear similar clothes. I think I had just remember wearing similar clothes to a couple of friends throughout the years. I definitely was more dorky, but I remember having a, rage against the machine Nirvana phase.

Smiley Poswolsky: I there's a class photo of me from, I think it's from seventh or eighth grade where like everyone's in. Okay. Like wearing clothes that would be appropriate for a class photo and I'm wearing like a rage against the machine t-shirt and Sambas and soccer shorts, and I'm just like, wow that's a style, I guess I was going on.

Smiley Poswolsky: Not sure it was cool or what it was, but I was doing my thing. And there were a couple other kids in the photo that were my friends that were also like, clearly didn't send, didn't seem to belong or didn't, weren't dressed like the others. And I'm like, yeah, those are my friends.

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Srini: This episode, the unmistakable creative is brought to you by ThoughtWorks a global technology consultancy. That's hiring senior and lead developers, data engineers, infrastructure, consultants, and more to join them in their roles across the United States.

Srini: It's pretty clear that last year changed our working lives forever. And maybe it made you realize that you were ready for a change that thought works. They challenged, curious minds to make a real impact, get to know them and discover how you can make your mark in tech. At ThoughtWorks, you're free to seek the most ambitious challenges free to change career paths, free to use technology as a tool for social change and free to be yourself.

Srini: They're looking for change makers, opportunity, creators, status quo, shakers thought workers. And if you're listening to the unmistakable creative, that's probably you learn more and apply at thoughtworks.com/careers. Again, that's thoughtworks.com/careers. It's funny, cause I always jokingly say it's like all those of us who didn't see anything on the internet that has gained any level of significance, we're all just dorks in high school and this is our way of compensating

Smiley Poswolsky: for it.

Smiley Poswolsky: Yes. Said

Srini: You get to college and you start to find your friends. And this is a personal curiosity because even in college, I think I never found that sort of sense of authenticity or the ability to, just be unapologetically myself and try to fit in. And I realized now I missed out because of that on so many different things.

Srini: What do you think it is that causes some people to discover that in college versus other people not to?

Smiley Poswolsky: Yeah. I think it's a journey. I think that, I don't think it happens right away now. I think that I found my closest friends in college. Towards the end, as school went on. I also had the experience of not having a cell phone for the beginning of school.

Smiley Poswolsky: We got, I think cell phones I was a freshman in 2001 and graduated college in 2005. Cell phones were pop became ubiquitous, maybe junior, senior year. So there was a real presence of how I, which I think is which I think was really powerful of just how college for me was really transformational of just being around people.

Smiley Poswolsky: And, your existence is just to hang out, listen to music, read, talk about the world and just chill. And there was just a lot of times he just didn't know people and I'm just really grateful for that. This sense that kind of your whole existence was to just be with people which were totally complete after that.

Smiley Poswolsky: You have very little of that and you have to be really intentional about that as an adult, because it becomes a lot harder to do that. Especially as people get older and move away, have children. But I think that, for me, my friendships were born out of that. Let's just kick it. And the people that I just wanted to kick it with, or just talk to forever became my closest friends.

Smiley Poswolsky: The people that I could waste time with, so to speak.

Srini: Yeah. It's funny you used the words waste time in particular. Cause I, I remember telling one of my friends, I said, like you remember when you were in the dorms you'd sit in these like lounges and you'd talk and, start talking at 10 o'clock and before you know it's three in the morning.

Srini: And that's so rare these days, cause after I started finished reading your book, I started just writing out this post titled you know the lost art of long slow dinners. And I distinctly remember I lived in Brazil in 2008 and this is right after the iPhone had come out and smartphones weren't ubiquitous, like they are today.

Srini: And especially in Brazil, they weren't ubiquitous. And one of my friends said, do you think like we would have had any of the mishaps and adventures that we did, in salt because so Paul was a crazy shit show of a city to live in. And he said, imagine if you'd had a cell phone, think about all the crazy stories we wouldn't have, but I still distinctly remember I had a friend from Columbia and she, I would sit outside a cafe, we'd start dinner at six and we would just sit there for four and a half hours.

Srini: And I can't remember the last time I've ever done that.

Smiley Poswolsky: Yeah. Yeah. That's friendship right there. When you lose track of time. I have a little chapter in the book about, yeah. The power of travel. I think, what, one of the reasons why people, speak so fondly of travel and make new friends when they're traveling is because usually beyond maybe taking photos of cool places.

Smiley Poswolsky: They probably are not on their phone as much as they would be when they're home. They're just get caught up in that, being and just letting the spontaneity, that comes with that experience. And that's one of the things I'm so grateful for of college.

Smiley Poswolsky: People talk all the time, oh, we don't need higher education. What a waste to spend, $50,000 a year for four years go into debt and graduate and not even be qualified for a job. And I think, I agree with that general sentiment. Especially today, it's like you graduate from a school, even a good school, and you're not necessarily qualified for the job market.

Smiley Poswolsky: You should take that money invested in your school. Or, and build a company or, or just buy a house and build your career from there. And there is something special. And I think it's still special today for most, going to college for most people, going to college where you have those experiences of hours and nights and weeks where you're just having those conversations.

Smiley Poswolsky: As you were saying, till three in the morning, having those slow dinner parties, because that kind of teaches you about the world. It teaches you about who you are. You find yourself, you find your voice, you, you learn how to debate, to disagree, but disagree productively to say, oh, I didn't see it like that.

Smiley Poswolsky: Or I don't think we should do that on campus. Or, that's not how I see this, major social issue that's happening in the world. I agree with that, but not with that. Have you read this? What about this? And that's. That's what being an adult really is that kind of experience of conversation of connection and learning and growth that we don't really get once we, we, we don't, we usually don't have the tools for facilitating that after college you would have to go, I think, to a retreat or a workshop or really build it into your life.

Smiley Poswolsky: I think only a certain number of people are able to do that both logistically. And it's just really hard to build that into kind of your adult life once you leave school. So one of the advent, one of the, one of the beauties of that experiences is that just very available to you.

Smiley Poswolsky: It's very present. It's very in the dorms, on campus, in the library, In class, like that's your point of your existence is to have conversations.

Srini: Yeah, no, I've always said that if I were to go back to college, I would approach my social life, like van Wilder, because that seems, mean to me, that's the ultimate, you want an amazing social life, watch that movie and just follow that plan to the letter.

Srini: I always jokingly said if I had been smart, I would've joined every ethnic club because then I wouldn't have been limited to just Indian women. I would've met the Filipino girls, like my friends, like you're an idiot. That's where your motivation. I was like in college, everybody is, open, it's like a breeding ground for making friends.

Srini: But I think that at that age, we're not, self-aware enough to realize that, wait a minute, if I'm completely open-minded and willing to talk to anybody, I can have this just really abundant social.

Smiley Poswolsky: Yeah. And that maybe, I look back and what I remember from college and what I take away is the relationships is social relationships, right?

Smiley Poswolsky: I learned a lot. It's a good school, I'm not doing anything related to my film. My, my major, I was a film studies major. I learned a lot, it was lean, has a great film program. And I took some great classes, but I don't remember, the reading or the papers I wrote. I remember the people I met and the experiences we had together.

Smiley Poswolsky: And I actually think that I'm not saying that it's worth the cost now that's colleges are paying. But I think that's really, I think we should have that experience of like in-depth learning growth conversation every 10 years of our life. We should go away for six months, to get to, to reemerge into that space, but not just when we're 18 or 20.

Smiley Poswolsky: I think it happens a little bit early for people, they're not quite ready for it, but I would love to, I would have loved to have done that, near the age of 30, because that's when I had a whole other transformation and the kind of quarter-life crisis, third life crisis understanding of who I was and what I wanted to do with my life.

Smiley Poswolsky: And I needed that experience again, but I was like, oh, I already went to college. I'm supposed to know what I'm supposed to do with my life, but that's not at all how it works.

Srini: Yeah. I've always thought it was strange that, you're making decisions about what your entire life is supposed to look like when you've only lived a fraction of it.

Srini: And to me that's a fatal flaw in the way we think about this. But w speaking of, quarter-life crisis in which we talked about last, what has been the trajectory of your career that has led you to, where

Smiley Poswolsky: you're at today? Yeah so my first book that I wrote nearing the age 30 was what's called the quarter-life breakthrough was really thinking about my search for meaningful work and millennials and young people trying to find careers with purpose.

Smiley Poswolsky: So trying to make a living doing something that they love, there's something that they cared about or something that was impactful making money while also doing good. And I wrote about that experience and I self-published a book that sold 10,000 copies and then led to a book deal and to a speaking careers, which is how I my, my main business, I speak at companies around engaging millennials in the workplace.

Smiley Poswolsky: And through that experience found that actually both for millennials and gen Z and just frankly, employees in general, one of the biggest conflicts and crises that is emerging is the loneliness. Is people finding this disconnection, not just when they're a young person growing up or in, in elementary school or high school or college, but in adulthood.

Smiley Poswolsky: And started writing a little bit about my own experience with loneliness. As someone who's, a pretty extroverted person, my nickname is smiley. I obviously love people. I'm very socially engaged, at least when there's not a pandemic. I'm my job is literally to meet people. I go around to companies and conferences to meet people.

Smiley Poswolsky: That's what I do for a living. And yet I was still feeling very lonely, right? And I'm like, if I'm feeling lonely, as smiley, as someone who meets people as a job, which is a pretty cool job, then other people probably are too. And you start to look at the data and you're like, oh yes, I'm not alone. Nearly two thirds of Americans are lonely. 70% of millennials, 80% of gen Z, the average American hasn't made a new friend in the last five years. Many people had zero friends at work zero, and we only spend 4% of our time with our friends. And I'm like, this is a problem, right? This is not good.

Smiley Poswolsky: And this is all data from before COVID from before a year of social isolation. So I started writing about it and I started writing about my own experience with loneliness as an extroverted person. I started writing about the death of one of my best friends that kind of launched this new book friendship and the age of loneliness.

Smiley Poswolsky: I lost one of my best friends. He was 32 years old. He died from a brain cancer. And I saw this book as a love letter to friendship as getting back to basics. What would it be like if we just celebrated those friendships? Not necessarily, networking and that kind of thing, but actually just building deep, meaningful relationships.

Smiley Poswolsky: With people in our lives. And that may be, there is some power in that there's some magic in not necessarily me, my first book is about career success or purpose in life. And I realized, oh, wait a second. Maybe it's, there's something a little bit more simple here, right?

Smiley Poswolsky: There's something a little bit more pure in this search for meaning maybe it's less about the ex the kind of accomplishments or what we'd put on LinkedIn or, that type of thing and more about the people in our lives. And a lot of the data actually shows that, there's, there was this landmark study that Harvard did tracking Harvard, sophomores starting in 1938 that found good social relationships really are the key to a healthy and happy life.

Smiley Poswolsky: So the people that have the healthiest relationships and friendships at the age of 15. Are most likely to be the healthiest and happiest at the age of 80, that has nothing to do with their wealth or their success or their influence, or, what they ended up doing with their lives and has everything to do with who is in their life.

Smiley Poswolsky: And do they care about those people and do those people care about them, which I think is just so simple yet, not something that I don't think most of us on a day-to-day basis live by.

Srini: Yeah, absolutely. I know you wrote about Levi who did you, the friend that you're referring to extensively in the book?

Srini: Cause it was funny. My roommate was asking me about some of the work that he's doing around disconnecting from the internet. I was, I told them I was like, go look up believe, I feel like, so like he's the guy who pretty much, created this movement. But I'm curious when you lose a friend, particularly a young age and particularly a friend who's so young how does that change your own perspective about what matters to you.

Smiley Poswolsky: Yeah. So Levi losing Levi I think was for me a pretty big wake up call. I think, I lost my grandparents. I was very close with my grandmother specifically. My dad's mom cause I used to live in New York and she lived in Manhattan. I was in Brooklyn and I would see her every week.

Smiley Poswolsky: And there's something really hard about losing someone who's an elder or someone that's in your family. Losing a friend who, all of a sudden, is healthy. Some, a friend who you're going on adventures with, we'd go to burning man. We're running camp grounded, which is a tech free digital detox summer camp for adults.

Smiley Poswolsky: Someone who's just living the peak experience life that a 30 something is living in the bay area. And then all of a sudden they get diagnosed with brain cancer and die a year later. I think really makes you realize how precious life is. I think it makes you. Realize what really matters which is those moments of disconnection, where the phone's not on, where you're not looking at a screen where you're just with your friend, you're having that dinner, you're having a glass of wine.

Smiley Poswolsky: You're playing a game, you're taking a walk in the woods, you're traveling, you're on an adventure. You're just with people. It makes you celebrate that. At least for me, it made me realize that a lot of the things that I normally spend my time focused on, which are a little bit more about, career or success or trying to make money in the end don't necessarily matter as much.

Smiley Poswolsky: And what really does matter is those moments, those kinds of magical moments, it's like the kind of suns, the sunset moments, the moments where you're oh my gosh, like life beauty, nature, magic Losing track of time for getting the time even exists for getting that you even have a phone, those types of things.

Smiley Poswolsky: That's what life is all about. That's what Levi taught me. That's what I was trying to capture in this book. And the kind of the essence of what it's like to lose a friend is to remember, maybe there's a positive there and remembering to live by live by those moments a little bit more, put those a little bit more at the center of our lives.

Smiley Poswolsky: And I think that's hard to do. I'm not saying it's easy, but I think it's really it's really important. I think it also made me realize the importance of ritual, where, I think it's so easy. You just don't know how much time people are going to have left. And you don't know how much time you have left.

Smiley Poswolsky: And I think we saw that in the last year at the pandemic of just being a little bit more appreciative and grateful for the people around us, because we can get to see them. Especially for people who, whose parents or family members or friends got sick and they couldn't even visit them.

Smiley Poswolsky: This sense of oh my God, that last time we hung out, I didn't know. That was going to be the last time we were hanging out. Maybe next time I see them, I'm going to really give them a big hug. Or I'm going to bring them a gift that I know they're going to love, or I'm going to make them a playlist.

Smiley Poswolsky: That's like their favorite playlist, or we're going to do something really special and not just go to the random coffee shop. We always go to, we're going to plan our whole day adventure. Just cherishing that a little bit. That, that's what I take away a little bit from that law.

Srini: Let's get into the concepts in the book. To me, part of why so many ideas resonated with me is because when you're in adult life, it's hard to make new friends. I lived in San Diego for three years and part of the reason I left was because I had such a hard time making friends. And then I ended up moving to Boulder with my roommate, Matt and oh, it's funny, despite 18 months of being socially isolated, I told my sister, I'm like, this is the happiest I've ever been.

Srini: And I realized why it's because I have two amazing friends who I live with and that's made a world of difference, but in adult life, that's not easy to do. So let's start with this whole idea of, being more playful. Cause you say the road to loneliness is paved with comparison and the road to connection is paved with play.

Srini: What does that look like in practice? Because I think that we undervalue that so much because we're so damn busy, like optimizing our productivity and trying to do, anything we can to accomplish some other thing that we can brag about online.

Smiley Poswolsky: I think for me, when I think of play, I think of throwing the rule book out the window, you think of, being a kid, your whole, the whole point of your existence is to make friends.

Smiley Poswolsky: It's okay, it's go. It's recess, go make friends, you're in school. It's did you make a friend today? Did, who did you meet today? What did you do? And as adult, that's not at all the expectation, no one asked that. Did you make a friend today? So I think when I think of, be more playful as a precursor to making friends, it's trying new things, it's being curious, it's going up to people and I know not everyone's going to go up to strangers.

Smiley Poswolsky: That's hard to do especially, or at least it was when people were all wearing masks and you couldn't even see people's faces, but it's having a little bit more of an attitude of, what I'm going for it. I'm going outside my comfort zone. I'm going to be curious. I'm gonna, I'm gonna, have my eyes open when I go into order a cup of coffee, rather than my head buried in a phone.

Smiley Poswolsky: If I go to a dinner party, I'm not just going to talk to the one person I know, but I'm going to say, oh, Hey, what's your story, right? Maybe I'm going to ask a little bit deeper questions then where, what do you do? Where do you live? Maybe I'll ask what's something exciting that you're working on right now.

Smiley Poswolsky: What's the last album that you listened to? What's a dream you have right now for a creative project, right? Just thinking a little bit deeper about how you can bring a little bit more play into your life. That was one of the beautiful things about Levi Felix and he had started this whole movement around digital detox and trading screen time for kind of playful time and camp rounded was all about the power of play.

Smiley Poswolsky: You actually can't, we're not allowed to talk about work so you could have no debt, no W2. Which is actually pretty simple re reframe for people to make their conversations much more about who they really were. I think when, work, I love my work, so I enjoy talking about it, but I actually think that if you have that container of not talking about work, it allows you to get into a little bit more about that playful childlike kind of sense of wonder a sense of awe, a sense of what's possible.

Smiley Poswolsky: Who are you really like? Who are you? When you're just home and the music's playing and you have nothing to do, and you're just being silly, or who are you when you were a kid? Or who do you want to be? That you're not really showing right now? Like more vulnerable more courageous.

Smiley Poswolsky: I think that play makes us, helps us meet new people because we're not so sure. Trapped by the rules of saying, oh, that's not someone I would spend time with. That they're not my type in dating. It's oh, they're not my type. Actually you haven't even met them yet.

Smiley Poswolsky: How do you know? Not all people that, look a certain way or from a certain background are going to be like everyone else from that background. Have you, can you give them a, can you give them a chance? Can you at least have a conversation with them? Can you introduce yourself? God forbid.

Smiley Poswolsky: So just having that attitude. And I, I think, yeah, go ahead.

Srini: I laughed is because I have this joke of I don't date women who own small dogs cause the three or so that I've met her all have all been at a pain in the ass. So my friend's okay, so you're making a universal conclusion based on three data points and you know it all right.

Srini: But I'm sure I can find evidence to the contrary. I've just never had,

Smiley Poswolsky: right? There are people out there that have small dogs that are awesome. Yeah. Oh, I have no doubt.

Srini: So one of the things that there are two things that I really loved, that you said in the section on being playful, you said affirmation is largely undervalued in our society.

Srini: We're so used to hearing what we're not good at the simple act of telling someone they can be themselves, that they're already doing a great job, that they're okay. Exactly. The way they are is incredibly powerful. And it's funny. You're right. We do undervalue that in. How often do we tell people that I don't really think about that.

Srini: Of course like, my pump, my roommates up when they need it and vice versa. So why don't we do that and how do you do it?

Smiley Poswolsky: I think that we live in a society that's really about achievement and is about being an expert, and there were some.

Smiley Poswolsky: Places for that. I wouldn't want someone, I don't want to a pilot who is flying my plane that, it's I'm just going to give this a shot. All right. And not on my flight, you're not, damn, we want an expert, but I think, we need more, like my, the type of person, like my track coaches in high school, but go back to that.

Smiley Poswolsky: And more people like the kind of teachers counts, camp counselors, mentors, the types of people that are like, you got this, you're doing a great job. Nudging us along. We don't have those voices. And I think that actually plays a big role in why it becomes very hard to meet people as we get older, because there's no one kind of saying, go for it.

Smiley Poswolsky: Meet this person you're doing a good job, put yourself out of your comfort zone. You didn't, you went for today, you went on a date with someone with a small dog. Didn't work out, but Hey, good for you. You're putting yourself outside your comfort zone, but it's not, it's funny.

Smiley Poswolsky: It's like we don't have if we all, if I think if everyone had those types of people in their life we'd be in better shape. We know the kind of the person, the people that are our cheerleaders, we don't have cheerleaders. And what is a friend, if not a cheerleader. And even mentors, I like to think of it more as friend tours, like a mentor is okay, this person's giving me career advice, but a friend tour is this person is giving me career advice, but they also care about me as a person.

Smiley Poswolsky: They also going to be there. If I make a mistake, they're also going to be there. If I, fail or not, it doesn't go well. And I think that's what everyone's really looking for.

Smiley Poswolsky: Yeah, we're ready to get back into yoga. So you ordered the essentials, a non-slip mat yoga blocks to keep balanced and an exercise ball. And you used your bank of America, customized cash rewards credit card, choosing to earn 3% cash back on online shopping and up to 5.2, 5% as a preferred rewards member, which you put towards your most essential.

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Srini: Again, that's thoughtworks.com/careers. Yeah. Yeah. It's funny. Cause there's certain food from south India that I absolutely hate. My mom's like watch, you're going to marry a woman who ends up being an expert at making that. And at the rate, this is going on probably gonna end up with a woman with a small dog after all the things that I've said.

Srini: Yeah. One other thing that I really liked, and it's funny because this is actually common among Indian people. You're talking about giving gifts and you say contrary to what a gift shop might have. You believe you don't need a reason to give somebody a present. It doesn't need to be somebody's birthday or father's day or a wedding to give someone something yet.

Srini: I remember I saw my best friend after 18 months for the first time, about a week and a half ago. And he had a baby, I think sometime last year and she was a year and a half. This was the first time I seen her and we called my dad while I was with him. And he's you didn't take a gift. I was like, dad, trust me.

Srini: I had intended to take a gift. We didn't have time. He's you're always supposed to take a gift when there's a baby. Yeah. Talk to me about this. Because to me that was just oh yeah, this is what we do. But I don't think it's that clear.

Smiley Poswolsky: Yeah. I think that, I think there's such a power in giving gifts for no reason.

Smiley Poswolsky: I think it's great when you're doing okay, just had a baby wedding birthday, but if you just show up and be like, Hey, I'm giving you this gift. Cause I appreciate your friendship. Or I saw this t-shirt and it made me think of you because we went to that show together. Or I know this is your favorite chocolate bar or kombucha or ice cream or whatever.

Smiley Poswolsky: And you just grab it for someone. I don't know. I think those little tokens of appreciation and gratitude are so much more important than, Hey, I bought you this fancy $200 thing. What are you going to remember more Hey, I bought you this fancy thing or oh my gosh, it's my favorite? Like my favorite food from our favorite place.

Smiley Poswolsky: From when we got that night, we stayed up all night back in 2012, hanging out. Like you remembered that. Which is more meaningful, probably the smaller gift that just, you got for no reason. Again, This is not how society is built. It's we're built to just buy gifts for the very important milestones.

Smiley Poswolsky: But I think, showing more gratitude, showing more appreciation is the currency for a better world. I think of burning man has this whole thing around decommodification and there's a city that runs on gift-giving and whether you hate burning man or not, doesn't matter.

Smiley Poswolsky: I think it's a re it's a pretty powerful kind of sense that, the whole people show up to burning, man, just they're going to give gifts to strangers, whatever it is, it might be something food-related, it might be a bracelet. It might be a love letter. It might be, a crystal, whatever it is.

Smiley Poswolsky: You have this city of, 70,000 people going around giving gifts to each other. What if the world was more like that? What if you couldn't leave your house without being like, you have to give out five gifts. You can't go into a Starbucks without giving something to at least one person at the Starbucks.

Smiley Poswolsky: I don't know. I think we'd build probably a little bit more of a compassionate, thoughtful society. Just from simple tokens of appreciation. So again, it's like playing with the rules a little bit. It's being a little bit more playful, being a little bit more silly being a little bit more thoughtful and also, your dad was saying you didn't bring a gift.

Smiley Poswolsky: It's it's not too late. And also maybe the gift next time you see them is going to be more powerful. It's oh no, one's given us a gift in a year. You're the first person to give us a gift since the baby shower. The baby was born. Thank you. Wow, amazing. So it doesn't have to be like, oh, I missed, I do this sometimes where I'm like, oh, I missed the wedding.

Smiley Poswolsky: That's it. It's who cares? Like you didn't Britt get a gift from the wedding. No one remembers it's not like they have a spreadsheet that they're like, this person's done to me. They got me a crappy wedding gift or forgot a gift at all. It's more just moving forward.

Smiley Poswolsky: When you think of someone, let them know. I think that's the other thing with gifting is it's when you think of someone, let them know, often we think of people and we're just like, oh cool. I'm thinking of them right now, but we don't tell them. We don't acknowledge it from a note, a letter, a video message, buying a small gift.

Smiley Poswolsky: And we lose that moment of saying, Hey. I was thinking of you, like I have, in the ritual section of the book, just talk about my friend, Jillian, who sends out notes of being awesome. If someone comes into if she thinks of someone, if someone comes up into her brain or she's thinking of them throughout the course of her day, she sends them a note of, why she was thinking of them and why, and all the ways that they're awesome just in that moment.

Smiley Poswolsky: And it's so simple yet. She says that people are like, oh my gosh, you caught me in a moment where I was crying or I've been super depressed recently or, or I really needed to hear this today. It's amazing when we actually let people know that stuff because they're not, it can be a big difference for them.

Smiley Poswolsky: Yeah.

Srini: You talk about in the section on being a better friend about de-stigmatizing mental health, which I really appreciate it. And you say that therapy has taught me the value of present and active listening and important tool for being a good friend. During my first session with my therapist, I thought to myself, all this guy does is just sit there and listen to me.

Srini: What the hell am I paying for it? By our fourth session, I finally got it. I was like, oh, all this guy does is just sit there and listen to me. That's inimitable. And so I, I want to, I'm really glad you wrote about this because I grew up in a culture where mental health was incredibly stigmatized, as people would probably heard before I'd been, I was 36.

Srini: The first time I saw a therapist and I wondered, after a few sessions, what the hell took me so long to get here? How do we get to that point where we start de-stigmatizing this? Because I think it is starting to become more and more de-stigmatized, but there's also, a discomfort to talking about.

Smiley Poswolsky: Yeah. I think that hopefully one of the silver linings of the past year and the pandemic will be the conversation around mental health has shifted and saying, oh, everyone is dealing with this. There was data that came out last summer that showing that a third of Americans were experiencing signs of clinical anxiety or depression.

Smiley Poswolsky: A third of Americans is a lot of people over a hundred million people. So saying, I think it used to be that the kind of theory was, oh, therapy is reserved for the ultra unwell. People going through serious mental health challenges, or maybe the ultra wealthy people that are just like, oh, I have a therapist, like everyone in my family has a therapist, whatever money we spend money.

Smiley Poswolsky: And now it's everyone needs a therapist. How can we make those services more affordable, accessible? Everyone deserves this. Everyone needs this. The world life is really hard. So I'm hoping that kind of conversation has shifted. I think you're seeing a lot of companies now I do a lot of workplace stuff, realizing that either they need to have a therapist kind of available to all of their employees or provide that benefit just because, if they're not taking care of their people and their people don't feel well and are having these mental health challenges, like how the hell are they supposed to do a good job at work?

Smiley Poswolsky: And that it's like actually in the interest of the company for people to be sleeping well to feel healthy, to feel emotionally fit, right? That's not just something that, your emotional problems, don't leave you from 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM. They're with you the whole time. So if they're keeping you from doing work, then they're actually keeping you from being a good employee.

Smiley Poswolsky: So I think that conversation is shifting, but I also think that it's up to us to normalize talking about these things a little bit. One of the intentions of my book was to a little bit normalize the sense of being alone, normalize that, Hey, healthy, happy quote, unquote, successful people that, have a personal brand or, write books or speakers or have quote unquote cool social life.

Smiley Poswolsky: Are also experiencing loneliness. Also sometimes feel a lot of anxiety and also need to see a therapist, just saying, Hey, this is not something that is only affecting people that, or have quote unquote, serious mental health challenges that we all are experiencing this stuff. And that it's I quote my friend Emily on hall in the book, who's a therapist.

Smiley Poswolsky: And I started this kind of this company called COA, which is trying to be a gym for mental fitness, like one medical group, but for mental health and kind of saying that it's like therapy is something you do lovely to promote wellness. It's not just like going to the doctor when you're sick.

Smiley Poswolsky: It's like going to the gym, if you don't go to the gym, when your body is falling apart, you go to the gym to make sure your body doesn't fall apart in the first one. So you do all those five, four or five days of reps, so that, one day you're not going to be unwell. And that's how we should think about therapy that it's, you're not doing it just when things are going bad and oh my gosh, everything's falling apart.

Smiley Poswolsky: You do it on those weeks. When you feel pretty good to give you the tools so that when things fall apart, you're in better shape or to have things keep going well, or to understand that things can go up and down and that's part of life and it gives you the tools to navigate all of that. Also I think that, one of the things that I've learned most from therapy is that, it's your relationship to yourself, effects your relationships with everyone else.

Smiley Poswolsky: And it's really hard to show up for the people in your life, whether they're your friends, your family, your partner spouse, children if you can't show up for yourself or if you're not, believing in yourself, if you don't have a sense of of that kind of self-worth, self-love it's really hard to show up for other people and that maybe therapy's best offering is for us to just have those conversations with our own selves and get to a better place with ourselves.

Smiley Poswolsky: Yeah.

Srini: Yeah, the, there are a couple other things in the interest of time. I don't think we'll get to all of them, but there's one that caught my attention. You said on the west coast, if you want to hang out with someone, you'll likely have no idea whether they actually want to hang out with here.

Srini: They're just saying they want to hang out with you cause they can't commit to it every time to see you. And you'll bump into each other for six months without ever actually making a formal plan to hang out. That's actually one of the reasons I wanted to get the hell out of California because I saw that over and over and it just baffled me that we're that flaky.

Srini: How in the world do people stop being that damn place? And why would that would that way to begin with?

Smiley Poswolsky: Yeah. The bay area is really bad on this. That's why I wrote this. I've, there's so many people where yeah. I've had this conversation where it's let's, I'm like, cool. Let's, I grew up in the east coast.

Smiley Poswolsky: I, my, my family is from New York, but I grew up in Boston. And it's the east coast way is like, cool, Saturday, two o'clock like bus, let's just go for it. What's your, what are you doing on Saturday? You just go, that's the first thing you say, the west coast.

Smiley Poswolsky: It's oh maybe in a couple of weeks I'm not really sure. It might be at a time. I'm like, let's just stay in touch. It's okay, you said that last time we're not like, what do you actually want to hang out? So I think, just being real about your needs is important.

Smiley Poswolsky: That's like the kind of needs and boundaries is the kind of takeaway that I have from this experience is if you don't want to spend time with someone just articulate. Not oh, I hate you. You suck. It's more Hey right now, I don't have a lot of space. I'm working on this project. I'll reach out, back out to you in August, or, Hey, I noticed that the last couple of times we've bumped into each other, we haven't made a plan, if you really want to hang out, text me and let me know, just articulating that. So a little bit more honest, open communication, I think is okay. I don't think that's hurtful.

Smiley Poswolsky: But I also think that there are just going to be flaky people and you have to make the determination, like how many of those people do you want in your life? Are they adding value to you or not? And if they aren't then maybe there's other people in your life that you want to prioritize more.

Smiley Poswolsky: And if you do want to spend time with them, call it out a little.

Srini: Yeah. Yeah. Flaky people are my, probably my biggest pet peeve. There's a couple of last things I want to talk about here. And this is why one of my favorites, you said, plan a sleep over. Remember how fun sleepovers were when we were kids.

Srini: You got all the time together to eat popcorn debate, which movie to watch, laugh out loud and gospel before bed and making pancakes for breakfast. We need more platonic adult sleepovers. Next time you have a deep Pang plan to sleep over with your close friends. You have much more time to play. And I thought it was hilarious that you specifically said platonic adults sleep first.

Srini: Because in my mind, I was like, yeah, that's a good thing. You call that out because I think the immediate assumption is of somebody sleeping over, then we're going to have

Smiley Poswolsky: sex, right? Yeah. Like I want to make it clear that yeah, you can have sleepovers. Yeah. With friends that it's not about like there's the hookup or you're dating someone.

Smiley Poswolsky: That's one thing and those sleepovers can be great. Don't get me wrong. But I'm also getting back to a little bit more of the, like the overnight trips with friends or yeah. Oh, it's late. You want to sleep over, then we can have breakfast in the morning, like that kind of playful kind of sense of losing track of time and having those deep hangs, I call them deep hangs.

Smiley Poswolsky: Like it's a little bit different than oh, let's go get coffee or dinner. It's let's spend the day together, right? Yeah.

Srini: Let's talk about two last things. One was the friendship circle where you said, making a friend circle is a useful exercise to determine which friendships you should be investing in.

Srini: So talk to me about this whole idea of tier one,

Smiley Poswolsky: tier two and tier three. Yeah. There have been a lot of different people have tried to end it, like figure out, like how do you compartmentalize friends? And I think there's no one way to do this. I think the key is actually just figuring out who are your people?

Smiley Poswolsky: Whatever definitions you want to use in terms of kind of tiers or categories. Is really up to you, but I think that it's just important to get clear on who are the people that you're trying to prioritize in your life. I remember during the pandemic, this kind of shifted for me. I realized, like I only had energy for the closest people in my life besides family.

Smiley Poswolsky: I just simply couldn't keep track of everyone. And I actually also, you were saying that, th the pandemic was you were doing really well or your social, you felt pretty socially fulfilled because, you had close friends around you. And I also felt like the sense of there was a little bit of simplification of, okay, I had on a post-it who are the people I'm really staying in touch with during this experience and who are the people that, I'm just not able to, and knowing that and being okay with that was really powerful for me, because I actually really did dive really deeper with, a group of my closest friends.

Smiley Poswolsky: We were doing a boys boys zoom call. Once a week, at least in the early days of the pandemic, we shifted more to like once a month, but I got to talk to those people so much more than I had, usually I only see them, a batch, a bachelor party or a wedding every couple of years.

Smiley Poswolsky: And I was talking to them once a week because I was like, okay, these are my close friends. These are the people that I'm really going to be prioritizing right now. So I think that, that's what I mean by this, like knowing who's in your circle. So you would have yourself in the middle and maybe family or chosen family, and you have your best friends, like your rider dies.

Smiley Poswolsky: The people that are just like, these are my, my core people keeping that to a small number. Then maybe extending it out a little bit, your close friends, people that you care about, and then maybe the outer circle being your extended network. People you've met a couple of times at an event, people that are in your life that you care about, they might not be the people that you're going to turn to.

Smiley Poswolsky: When you really need something. And that's okay. Yeah.

Srini: So I want to finish with one last component of this. Like I said, there's just so much in this book about, forming deeper, meaningful friendships that I think it'd be impossible for us to cover it in an hour. But this is something that really struck me.

Srini: You said in the digital age, we don't think twice about ghosting or swiping left on a potential partner. Perhaps technology has created the illusion that the perfect friend will be right around the corner, just like the perfect Tinder date. But what if nobody's perfect. And I think, if you're somebody who's been on the receiving end of being ghosted, you read that and you're yeah, it just, that's things like, to have somebody disappear from your life with no explanation whatsoever is really disorienting.

Smiley Poswolsky: Yeah. I think ghosting is never the right call. I think ghosting could be the right call in online dating context of okay, this person just was awful or treated him like shit. And has no value for my life. But I think, especially for someone who you would consider a friend or who you were friends with, way better to communicate, what happened or the wrongdoing, or the sense of wrongdoing, if you are interested in kind of reconnecting, rebuilding great name that.

Smiley Poswolsky: And even if you're not just saying, Hey I'm going to name that. I need to take some space from this relationship, I think is so much more healthy than ghosting because ghosting then allows the other person to be like, I can't believe, you both have all these stories in your head and neither is actually what's happening.

Smiley Poswolsky: It's just, what's in your head. So just naming it and deciding whether you want to actually take steps to reconnect, I think is a way healthier way of doing that.

Srini: I think, like I said, you've just packed this with so much valuable insight that would be impossible to cover in an hour or so.

Srini: I want to finish with my final question, which is how we finish all of our interviews and mystical creative. What do you think it is that makes somebody or something unmistakable?

Smiley Poswolsky: I would say it's how do you show up? How do you show up for the people in your life? How do you show up when things are hard? How do you show up when people really need you? That's what makes you on the stackable? How do you look after your people?

Srini: Amazing. I can't thank you enough for taking the time to join us and share your story your wisdom and your insights with our listeners. Where can people find out more about you, your work at the book and everything else?

Smiley Poswolsky: Yeah, so you can find out more about me at my website smiley pavelski.com.

Smiley Poswolsky: Sign up for my newsletter. I'm on all the social channels Instagram at up smiley, and you can find the book wherever you like to buy. Books are on Amazon friendship in the age of loneliness.

Srini: Awesome. And for listening, we will wrap the show with that.


Smiley PoswolskyProfile Photo

Smiley Poswolsky

Adam Smiley Poswolsky is a millennial workplace expert, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of The Quarter-Life Breakthrough (Penguin Random House) and The Breakthrough Speaker. His next book, Friendship in the Age of Loneliness, was published by Running Press/Hachette in May 2021.