One of the things few people warn you about when you are forced to actively adult on a daily basis in the real world is that you better already have your own friends, because otherwise you are, literally and figuratively, on your own. Once you leave school, there are no more group projects or awkward seating arrangements. There are no planned activities or required social rituals.
Sure, you will meet people at work, and you will become friends with some of those people. But very few of those will ever be what I call “take-home friends”: People who you let into the parts of your life that don’t involve paychecks, written evaluations, progress reports or “opportunities for improvement.” You will, occasionally, see these take-home friends at night and on weekends. These are the only people who you will actually keep in touch with after you have changed jobs. The others, the work friends, the people who you spent many more hours with than your family or actual friends, the ones who you traveled with and toiled with, but who two weeks after your two weeks’ notice are already on the path to distant memories, never make the move into real friendship.
Four years ago, I left my secure corporate job (where I had lots of work friends and a couple of great take-home friends) and moved two hours away. I made a major life pivot that involved pretty much chucking everything (and everyone) and starting over. I no longer had a regular workplace or built-in social interactions. I enrolled in a low residency MFA creative writing program, which meant most of my work was done online, except for two 10-day residencies twice a year. I was making friends through school but most lived thousands of miles away in California.
So, what’s a single adult far from familiar places or any family supposed to do? Without kids or a traditional job, I was outside of the normal friendship channels. Writing isn’t exactly a group activity, and sitting at your computer and talking to the dog aren’t exactly conducive to “getting out there.” On most days, I wasn’t particularly unhappy or lonely. My MFA experience had made me good at maintaining long-distance friendships and an online community.
Then something unexpected happened when I started training to be a guide at a local historic house museum. My trainee cohorts were a diverse group of people with different backgrounds, at different stages in their lives and careers. There were parents and non-parents, married people and single people. One was a real estate agent. Another was a landscape architect. One woman worked as a modeling agent and another has over two million frequent flyer miles from traveling the world. One speaks four languages. There were two writers, like me, and an antique book dealer. We spent hours together studying and training, sharing experiences. We spent a month shadowing other guides, taking tour after tour.
The sheer volume of information we needed to learn and retain to be able to entertain and amaze guests on tours overwhelmed us all. We started a group email chain sharing pictures and tidbits and anything else that would help. A strange thing happened on the way to our auditions: We became friends, real take-home friends. After our last training day before we split up for our individual tours, we all met for dinner at the real estate agent’s home. On her deck, we told stories and laughed and talked about things unrelated to our training.
I told them all how happy, and surprised, I was to have made such good friends so quickly. “I can be myself with you guys,” I said, understanding for the first time how it had been much easier to make friends with this group because I had never been concerned with making friends with them. I had also never had to worry about being anything other than honest with them and myself.
“It’s because we don’t have to be competitive,” the frequent flyer said. “It’s not like at a real job where you’re always worried about getting a leg up on everyone else.”
She was right, of course, but it got me thinking. Work friends are always potential competitors, whether we acknowledge it or not. There are a finite number of raises and promotions and opportunities to get ahead. Even in more collaborative workspaces, maintaining a professional veneer and wearing your work mask are important. I suspect similar things happen in spaces like the PTA or with parents whose kids play on the same baseball team. As adults, we always have a role to play. Like every book ever about being successful at work tells you, you need to concentrate on putting your best self forward—even if, in my experience, that best work-self was a very curated version of my best self-self.
For me, making friends was always a calculated decision of which parts and how much of the real me I would let surface. Somewhere, though, in the past four years, I have become much more comfortable in my own skin. Maybe it’s some wisdom that comes with age or confidence in my professional pivot, but I spend less time now worrying about getting people to like me. (Less time. I’m not highly evolved enough to say I don’t spend any time worrying about it.) If nothing else, being an only child who works at home alone gives you confidence in being by yourself.
I think that confidence allowed me to let my new friends in. Worrying less about me also let me really appreciate them for the amazing and interesting people they are. We all met as equals, not as friends of friends or parents of children of friends or full-time coworkers. We faced a difficult intellectual challenge as a team. We celebrated each other’s successes without any jealousy or hurt feelings. I hope this is what it means to make lasting friendships as an adult. I hope this group can stick and become the sort of take-home friends that populate each other’s lives for years to come. Whatever happens, though, I know we came into it with honesty and openness. That has to be some sort of advanced level of adulting, right?