Diversify Your Friendship Portfolio

by Davis_Kingsley1 min read9th Jul 201913 comments


Relationships (Interpersonal)

In investing, a common piece of advice recommends a diversified portfolio - in other words, having investments from a wide range of areas to avoid a crash in one area wiping out all your investments. Similarly, I have found that it can be beneficial to have a diversified friendship portfolio - in other words, friends across a wide range of communities or social circles.

For instance, I have a group of friends that I've known mostly since elementary/middle school, a group of friends that I know from the rationalist and EA community in Berkeley, a group of friends that I know from playing certain games competitively... there is some overlap between these groups, but by and large they are separate, and this can be quite valuable.

Because I'm active in multiple circles, if strange things are happening in one community I can step into another. If I need advice on a sensitive situation, I have people who know me well and aren't close to the matter to draw upon. Further, having these sorts of resources and perspectives available can open up options that might otherwise be difficult - if, for instance, I decided I could no longer be a part of one of those communities, leaving wouldn't be the end of my social life.

I sometimes see people -- in the rationalist community or elsewhere -- putting "all their eggs in one basket" when it comes to friendship, and I think that can often lead to pitfalls. If all your friends are from work, what happens if you leave your job? If all your friends are from a certain hobby, what happens if you get bored of it? If all your friends are from a certain social scene, what happens if there's a bunch of drama and that community splits? Having other social connections and communities to interact with can really help with such scenarios.

Lastly, I want to point out that having a range of friend groups can be a useful insulator against bad ideas. [1] Sometimes strange and unwelcome fads can spread across a community, and if that's the case it can suddenly become a less appealing place. If you have several friend groups to choose from, such things are much easier to "ride out" than if your whole social circle is suddenly into whatever new weird thing. Further, being able to run new stuff by people you know in other communities can serve as a good check on groupthink - being able to say "hey, a bunch of my friends in Berkeley are getting into X, does that make much sense to you?" can be quite a useful reality check!

[1] One caveat to this -- if you notice that certain friends or communities constantly seem to drag you in bad directions, it might well be time to move away from them!


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Strongly agree. Another benefit is that it exposes you to a broader swath of the world, which makes your models of the world better / more generalizable. I often feel like the rationalist community has "beliefs about people" that I think only apply to a small subset of people, e.g.

  • People need to find meaning in their jobs to be happy
  • Everyone thinks that the thing that they are doing is "good for the world" or "morally right" (as opposed to thinking that the thing they are doing is justifiable / reasonable to do)

I see how the idea is sensible for some, but I've never felt satisfied with compartmentalised friendships where I share a small facet of myself with each group.

In addition to diversification being somewhat alienating, there are some benefits of tight-knit groups you'd struggle to replicate in diversified social portfolio:

  • Lowered social transaction costs - when you divide your social time between fewer people you have more time to learn how best to work with each person
  • Easier trust coordination - repeated interactions over a long period of time mean you have a lot of past data to evaluate someone's trustworthiness
  • Emotional investment - loyalty is rational when each person isn't a replaceable commodity. Having tough conversations that will cause friction but pay off in the long run is worth it if there's actually going to be a long run.

Like financial investing, this has drawbacks as well. If there is a social group which is an especially good fit or especially beneficial to you, then diversifying away from it makes you get less overall value from friendships. Only if you don't have any idea where the gains/losses are coming from should you diversify for diversity sake.

Once you've sampled a number of different groups, you can allocate your social time disproportionally to those you get the most from. And still perhaps keep the others - this is more a hedge than a diversification strategy.

UNLIKE financial choices, you're investing time and emotional energy into friends. This is a FAR more limited, precious, and non-fungible resource. And the rewards are also non-fungible and non-storable (and in many cases, non-linear with investment size), very unlike money. The things that are no-brainers for financial decisions (diversity among categories and individual investments, reinvesting, deferred payouts) don't always directly apply to other life decisions.

The one thing I think this post is most missing, if it's primarily aimed at rationalists, is how introverted rationalists can go about making new friends. I've met a lot of people drawn to the rationality community because they don't know how to otherwise join of group of people to befriend, who they also have enough in common with that they would want to befriend them. Not saying that this isn't a good article (I strongly upvoted it, based alone on how important I think this signal/message is), nor that I know the best way to write about "how to make more friends (outside the rationality community)". I'm just saying if you have it in you, I think that would also be a post worth writing.

"Making new friends" or "Joining a New Group of Friends" or "Joining a New Community" might seem so obvious that it doesn't merit writing up how rationalists can do that. Yet, again, I've met rationalists who before they joined the rationality community that thought themselves so unable to make new friends in adulthood, they consider themselves lucky to even have fallen ass-backwards into the rationality community.

I note that one of Davis' categories was friends from competitive gaming - I'd guess there are a lot of nerdy, introverted types there. Some other activities that come to my mind as having a lot of people from that demographic: various other kinds of games (video/computer games, go, chess, pen-and-paper roleplaying games), juggling, historical reenactment, Wikipedia editing, fiber arts (spinning, dyeing, knitting, etc).

I suspect there are challenges for rationalists in joining new communities beyond introversion. I've found it jarring to be getting along with some new folk and then people start saying ridiculous things, but worse, having no real interest in determining whether the things they say are actually true. Or even when they try, being terrible at discussion. I don't need to nitpick everything or correct every "wrong" thing I hear, but it is hard to feel like beliefs aren't real to people - they're just things you say. A performance.

There are people outside the rationality community who are fine at the above, but being used to rationalists does introduce some novel challenges. It'd be nice if we ever accumulated communal knowledge on how to bridge such cultural gaps.

The first thing I would think to look at to solve this problem is to look at cultural gaps between rationality and adjacent communities, especially based on how they interact in person, like effective altruism, startup culture, transhumanism, etc.

I think part of the point of the OP was to get outside that still relatively narrow set of subcultures.

This is advice that I endorse but struggle to follow myself.

Something it's somewhat in tension with is a different set of advice I've been trying to adopt, which is to try to cultivate a small number of close friends rather than a smorgasborg of acquaintances.

[Epistemic status: synthesis of observation, intuition, advice from other people]

I don't think the “rather than” in that second paragraph is workable. Strong ties usually grow out of weak ties, so if you don't have a broad buffer of weak ties (or if it goes away, or if you let it go away), your replenishment pool for strong ties also goes away. Even strong ties frequently don't last forever, so if you have only strong ties, you're in an unstable position in the long term. Sometimes strong ties can give you access to more weak ties, but sometimes they can't, and even when they can, you still have to step up to take advantage of this.

I also vaguely think the investment metaphor might go wrong places for reasons similar to what Dagon mentions, but I don't think I can unpack that now.

The most important claim here is that the thing that passes for friendship these days, among most people in your target audience, is best thought of not as a irreplaceable human relationship, or perhaps one of many ties to a richly embedded community, but an asset in a portfolio.

It can be helpful to have that, but it implies a pretty awful world in a lot of other ways, and I'm very sad to see advice about how to get along in that world that doesn't even mention the possibility of trying to make things better.

The title is mostly like that because it's funny. I strongly believe that people should cultivate closer friendships than is the default in modern society -- but I also believe one shouldn't put "all their eggs in one basket" in terms of who all you cultivate those friendships with.


I didn’t know how to write this comment, thx for saying it. The nearest I could come up with was imagining the OP recommending picking your 2-3 cofounders for a tech startup to optimise for diverse backgrounds. Actually the key things are people you are able to communicate with excellently, people who you’ve gone through high-pressure experiences with in the past, and people you’re actively excited about working with.

I think there is a very real argument that it’s good to spend time in multiple communities and probably also have long-lasting identities in such communities, which helps get perspective on your life’s stresses. But I reacted negatively to the phrasing about picking the people I'm close to with some randomness.