Choosing your friends

When I was younger, I wanted to be with the in-crowd. The ones who were doing the cool and amazing things, the ones who had friends around them, the ones who looked successful.

I think we all do, on some level. Being human means a search for acceptance, whether it’s acceptance of others or just self-acceptance. We long for validation from outside ourselves, even as we tell ourselves that no, we do not want that, that can’t be what we’re like.

I had a clan of people on the Usenet I talked to. Interesting, fascinating people. But they weren’t all good people. As politics in America turned increasingly toxic, they turned toxic as well. It was hard to be around them and to have a conversation with them, because it all ended up back in the dark underbelly of conspiracy politics.

I was, once upon a time, a churchgoer. The church I went to was young, vibrant, and intellectual. But it was also very, very hard to connect with others. I once threw a birthday party for myself and invited 50 of them. 2 RSVP’d. I felt like a nobody, and it stung. I apparently wasn’t a valuable connection, or I wasn’t valuable to them. When you’re taught that everyone is valuable in a faith community, but the social cliques become exclusionary, you wonder if it’s hypocrisy, or just the way people are.

I left the church. I left that Usenet group. I did keep some people in those circles, but I cut most out. In leaving the church, I really didn’t lose my faith in a deity as much as I lost faith in a faith community being a community. I learned that the only community I could find came from the community I created.

In the years since, I’ve learned the value of surrounding yourself with the right people. People that aren’t “cool.” People that make you uncomfortable, that challenge what you think and what you say. My design peers, my mentors and mentees, are varied, many colors, many sexual and gender identities, many religions, all levels of experience. As a designer, I appreciate having these people to draw from in wisdom. I only hope I can return to them the same value they give me.

A diverse peer group teaches you how to be tighter in your logic while being more sympathetic to the points of view of others you do not understand. It teaches you how to be a better person.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that I have control over whom I invest my time and energy in. My greatest regret is I didn’t realize this sooner.

You have control over who your friends are. You have control over the level of engagement you want to have with your peers, your neighbors. You should always be respectful, even as you correct them in their faulty thinking. But there is nothing that says you have to invest in these people. And there’s nothing that says they have to invest in you, either. The exchange needs to be mutual, or else you end up getting nothing out of the relationship. And in our interconnected age, we have the ability to seek out those healthy relationships far beyond the immediate geography around you.

Choose your community. Don’t worry about being cool; worry about lifting others up and making them better people. Seek out the healthy relationship and cut out that which is unhealthy.

Author: Dylan Wilbanks

Dylan Wilbanks is a web roustabout, raconteur, and curmudgeon currently practicing as a user experience designer in Seattle. He’s spent over 15 years designing, building, and perfecting online experiences, and every once in a while does a good job. Occasionally, he speaks at conferences like SXSW and Webvisions. He created one of the first Twitter accounts used in higher education, but that was an accident, and he's really sorry about it. With Kyle Weems, he co-hosts Squirrel And Moose, a podcast about designing and building the web, when they remember to talk about it. He likes nectarines. You can read his tweets at @dylanw and learn more at dylanwilbanks.com.