A friendship can serve many purposes.
People form friendships to avoid loneliness, to have fun, or simply out of convenience—like people who spend time together because they’re neighbors.
However, there is a special kind of friendship that we all have the power to develop. It’s a friendship that deliberately and consciously fosters brilliance. It’s a friendship that brings forth the best—the most brilliant things—in each other.
It can be really helpful to engage in this type of friendship with someone who is in the same field or has the same interests as you. For example, one of my most brilliant friendships is with John Gray, who wrote Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. We regularly spend time together, and we always end up thinking things we’ve never thought before, saying things we’ve never said before, and we even wrote a book together that had never been written before.
Another friend, Jonathan Robinson, lives in Nevada City where I live, and also writes books and likes to talk about a lot of the same things I do. We often go for walks and make it clear that the point of these is not simply to exercise or chat about current events. The point of these walks is to stimulate each other, to inspire each other, and to promote new and brilliant ideas.
We’ve developed a technique that helps us do this, and one that I hope others can use to strengthen their own friendships while inspiring each other in work and life.
When we meet up, we initially just start walking, but after a while we jump into our practice. It starts with one of us talking for five minutes about something we’ve been thinking about—it could be the outline of a book, a blog post, or anything that is percolating. One of us talks about something that is currently germinating, while the other simply listens, with no interruption. Then, after five minutes, we switch to dialogue mode, and the one who was listening can start to interact.
We have discovered three modes of interaction, each with its own purpose:
1. The first is encouragement.
“Wow, you’re so brilliant! That’s fantastic…I can’t believe you thought that up. It amazes me to see how creative you are; you know, the whole world will be changed by your idea!”
This way of responding makes the other person feel good, but does not necessarily inspire him to think beyond where he has gone with his idea. He tends to relax and congratulate himself. It is often helpful to have this kind of encouragement when working through an idea.
2. The second response is critical feedback.
“Have you thought this through? I don’t think that’s going to work…I mean, you know, a car driven entirely by soap bubbles, that’s a lot of soap bubbles you have to create, and anyway what about the pollution? Have you even looked into the effects of billions of people emitting soap bubbles all day? Besides, what’s it going to do to visibility on the freeway if there are all these soap bubbles floating everywhere?”
The point of critical feedback is to pick holes and challenge the speaker. This, of course, can be demoralizing, but it does sharpen the mind toward having new, more brilliant thoughts, which had not previously been considered.
3. The last kind of feedback is curiosity.
“Tell me more about that. I didn’t quite understand this bit…so, when you said “brilliant,” did you mean “inspired,” did you mean “very intelligent,” or, did you mean “shining brightly?” What exactly is the point? When you said to get together with your friend, could it be any friend…is there anything here to do with age or cultural background?
Curiosity means: Tell me more. I’m interested but I don’t have enough information.
All of these responses are, in one way or another, useful in bringing out the best from your friends. I’ve found that there is an ideal ratio for this practice: 40 percent encouraging, 10 percent critical, and 50 percent curiosity.
When we first begin this practice with our friends, it’s great to monitor our behavior and ask ourselves: what is my default state? Almost everybody has one habitual way of listening and responding. Some people are always encouraging: Oh, this is great…this is wonderful…fantastic…thank you! Some are repetitively critical, unable to stop themselves from picking an argument or poking holes. These people are typically trained in critical thinking. And others are just naturally curious.
Pay attention to which one you are and figure out your default ratio. Then see if you can consciously work toward the 40:10:50 ratio.
My hope is that after reading this, we can all begin taking brilliant walks with brilliant friends, expressing brilliant thoughts about ideas that can benefit all of humanity.