A few weeks back, I watched one of my favourite movies again: “The Motorcycle Diaries”. Two friends, Alberto (29) and Ernesto (24), cross the beautiful American continent on their motorbike la Pedrosa (‘the mighty one’). A journey over 13.000 kilometres that deepens their friendship and will prove to have a lasting impact on their lives, especially on the life of Ernesto.
As he puts it in his diary:
“This isn’t a tale of heroics, nor is it merely some kind of ‘cynical account’. It’s simply two lives running parallel for a while, with common aspirations and similar dreams.”
Ernesto and Alberto are as close as friends can get during their 6 month trip but do not meet again for almost a decade afterwards. Irreversibly changed by the injustice witnessed on the road, Ernesto slowly grows into ‘Che’, the famous and iconic guerrilla commander we all know. Alberto on the other hand does not follow the revolutionary ideas of his friend and sticks to his medical career. Both dreamt of traveling across South America, but both took a different turn afterwards.
I’ve always really liked Ernesto’s quote as I recognise bonding with people that walk a parallel road – for a while. Such companions can play a crucial role in my life, help me push frontiers but can still get out of sight at some point, either by their, or by my own doing. It’s something that can be hard to understand or accept, but Ernesto’s quote gives me some comfort when I fail to keep someone in my life: maybe it’s ok to let go if aspirations and dreams drift apart?
Friends can fuel dreams and help us to achieve them. Like Alberto pushes Ernesto to hit the road instead of staying with Chichina, the girl he loves. Without his friend, he might have never left. The other way around, over time, friends can also prevent us from living our own lives. Chichina, part of a rich established family, would never have allowed Ernesto to live his revolutionary dream, neither could Alberto have supported him in further developing his ideas.
But does this mean that we really have to say goodbye to old friends at times? Can’t we just keep the old friends and make additional new ones? Anthropologist and psychologist Robin Dunbar is famous for his studies on the maximum number of contacts people can maintain. He found we can keep a maximum of 100 to 150 casual friends (depending on social abilities). Up to 50 close friends (people you invite for a group dinner), max 15 intimate friends (the ones you can confide in about most things) and if we’re lucky 5 friends that form our closest support group. In other words, we don’t have the social capacity to keep extending our circle of friends endlessly. By the way, while Dunbar found that the size of the different groups (150, 50, 15, 5) is quite stable indeed, their composition can be fluid. So people can float in and out of our inner circle without the friendship being terminated.
Have sites like Facebook outdated Dunbar’s theory and can we keep more contacts than ever before? According to Dunbar, our social capital is pretty much fixed. This means that
“if you garner connections with more people, you end up distributing your fixed amount of social capital more thinly so the average capital per person is lower.”
In other words, keeping more contacts through social media might mean we end up with more superficial contacts, but also (and more importantly) with less time and capacity to invest in our close friends. How do you allocate your time and attention?
Anyway, there is a maximum to the number of people we can keep around us. Also, while people might prove to exert a positive influence on our development during a certain stage of our lives, this influence can become negative over time. We all develop on a personal level and it is extremely unlikely that your friends follow the exact same trajectory of personal development as you do. Giving yourself the space to discover new ways includes letting go of old friends and welcoming new. To put it boldly: if we always stick to the same friends, we probably end up living a life that’s not entirely ours.
Whether it’s friends, family or colleagues, the people around us have a huge impact on what we think and do. For example, when you study law, you’ll start thinking like a lawyer and probably get many lawyer friends. Also, you might very well get convinced that working at a big corporate law firm is ‘the best career move’ and find yourself studying hard to get in – even so if your aspirations and dreams were very different once. It’s the beliefs held by the people around us that nudge us in a particular direction. This is also why it’s so hard to quit a job; all of your colleagues implicitly tell you to stay, everyday. Simply by not leaving themselves.
Therefore, if for example you keep thinking about becoming an entrepreneur, don’t have after-work-drinks with your colleagues but meet some inspiring entrepreneurs instead. If you experience a call to the road, (temporarily) cut yourself loose from those that keep you home. Having doubts about your job in general? Invite me for a drink 😉 or have a look at www.escapethecity.org, a community of like minded people that offers ample inspiration to make (little) steps. Reach out to get pulled out.
I hope I made a clear cause for embracing change when it comes, also when this means we have to reach out to new people or let go of old friends. However, all of the above does not alter the fact that having a (few) livelong friendship(s) is a privilege that can hardly be overestimated. It’s often the friends that I know longest that I turn to first, to celebrate and especially to seek support (whether they live around the corner or on the other side of the world). That life can lead us in very different directions, physically or otherwise, does not in itself justify letting go of a friend. In the end, good friendships are among the most precious things available to us.
It took almost a decade, but Alberto and Ernesto did meet again after saying goodbye at the end of their trip. Both considerably changed I bet, but they must have had a marvellous time sharing beautiful memories. After Ernesto’s (early) death, it’s Alberto -as a tribute to their lasting friendship?- who works out and complements Che’s diary for it to be turned in one of my favourite movies: ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’.