At an event in Utah, I met Larry Yatch, a veteran Navy Seal who once worked in the Middle East. After a decade with them, an injury led to his retirement and now he speaks as a leadership consultant. We spoke to the same group and he had so valuable lessons from his time in the field in the highest stakes possible. One point he shared that stuck out was how aligned SEAL members had to be with each other. The planning must be down to the millimeter and millisecond, a kind of precision that most people can’t conceive of. “Success is fully dependent on your ability to coordinate action with other people,” he said of his time as a SEAL. In those situations, it’s literally life and death. Though we are not facing those same dangers, our success and failures are also aligned with how well we work within the context of our teams.

In today’s day and age, it’s easy to feel isolated at work. Depending on your situation, you might have limited interaction with colleagues, clients, superiors, and subordinates. You may communicate through email, talk through screens, and have lunch every day in front of your computer. All of this might be convenient, but it can also be uninspiring, lonely, and draining.

The 2020 pandemic brought this issue to the forefront of most of our lives. The lockdown triggered a period where just about everyone had to work from home, but it also led to a larger discussion of what an office even is and what it should look like. I believe this period will prove to have a permanent impact on how and where people work.

With the rise of video conferencing, collaborative documents, open-source computing, and the work-from-home (WFH) culture, millions of workers now view themselves as independent satellites operating on their own. I believe that this culture of distance work is driving us further apart.

It has happened socially as well. We might have more ‘friends’ online but how many actual friends do we have? Sociologists found that we tend to view other people online as “objects,” instead of human beings. This obviously hurts our ability to feel empathy and are a reason why online comments can be so cruel. We may be more ‘connected’ in a social-media sense, but are we connected to others on an emotional and spiritual level? Is shooting an email to someone in your department as impactful as sitting down with them for five minutes? Don’t we need that physical connection?

Working alone, you may go the whole day without seeing anyone, missing out on the chance interactions that make today different from yesterday. Offices bring opportunities to be with close colleagues but also to interact accidentally with people, grabbing coffee in the break room, getting out of your car in the parking lot, stopping to chat in the hallways, so-called functional inconveniences.[1] Steve Jobs famously put all the bathrooms for the entire Pixar company on the ground floor to encourage this kind “arbitrary collisions of people” from different departments because he felt it encouraged creativity.

Our interactions at work are not just a side effect (or nuisance) of being in an office. They’re a benefit. In a study of the 50 best places to work in the U.S., there was only one feature that was shared by every organization in the top 50: “quality relationships.” Across all industries, the thing that makes the most people happy about their workplace is the connections with the people there. Think about your favorite jobs you’ve ever had: Weren’t the people part of what made it so great?

There’s also evidence that these relationships help improve our job satisfaction[1] and keep us engaged in our work, both of which improve performance. We shouldn’t trade that all away just because we can. With the world moving towards automation, digitization, and A.I., connected relationships are more valuable than they’ve ever been. Don’t sell them short.

Research shows the dangers of lacking social connection are significant, comparable to “the effects of cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, and lack of physical activity.” Those who reported fewer social connections were more likely to die than their counterparts and isolation has been tied to depression and anxiety, to sickness and weakened immune systems, to obesity, and to shorter life spans.

It’s strange how ‘friends’ and ‘followers’ have become a numbers game. Our worth is now measured by how many online connections we have, though outside of networking, I’m not sure how beneficial this really is. Your inner circle should remain manageably small, which allows for deeper and more meaningful connections. There’s only so much time and energy we have and if we’re spread too thin in our relationships, we’re not really benefitting from any of them. It’s like multi-tasking where you’re doing so much that you’re doing nothing: are you “friends” online with 200 people but actual friends with none?

Smaller circles also allow you to more carefully cultivate who or what you’re letting in to your world. Just like you need to be conscious of what you put in your body, you need to be careful of who you let into your inner circle. Keep in mind that each of those people also has an inner circle, “which you will ultimately be connected, and those people will have an inner circle and so on.”

The people in your life should also bring out and reinforce the best parts of you, the parts you’re trying to cultivate and build and improve. If you feel like you’re stagnating, maybe your social group or work colleagues are contributing to the inertia. It’s vital that we form stronger connections with people who encourage the version of ourselves we want to be.

As James Clear put it, “Join a group or tribe where the desired behavior is the normal behavior.” Find a circle that challenges you because you are going to absorb and reflect the behavior of those you spend time with. You will do it purposefully, out of a desire to belong, and unconsciously, out of habit. From friends, we pick up patterns of speech, moods, beliefs, behaviors, and other friends. Think about the people outside your family whom you spend the most time with. What behaviors do they each bring out in you? Are these desirable or undesirable? Do they lead to the best version of yourself? Being intentional with these questions will ultimately allow you to be more diligent about with whom you spend time.

One of the biggest benefits to being part of a team is having a built-in accountability system. Surround yourself with trusted teammates who align with your vision, mission, and purpose. Your team can help you see your blind spots, hold you to a high standard, and call you out. These are people that care about you enough to tell you what you need to hear even when it’s not something you want to hear. Don’t insulate yourself away from those who tell you the truth.

Your friends and colleagues can reinforce the best version of you is if you use them as accountability partners. If you’re trying to develop a new, positive habit, let them know about it, respectfully enlist them in the process, a strategy that has been proven to work. Offer to do the same for them. Remember: Holding someone accountable is not something you do to them; it’s something you do for them. It is a form of love.

It is essential that you protect your mental and emotional currency the same way you would protect your family and property. Put a fence around yourself and don’t let anyone in who—intentionally or not—pollutes you, endangers you, or weakens you. We are affected by those in our circle far more than we realize.

If you find yourself stagnating, take an accounting of everyone in your life. Are these relationships a source of that stagnation? Can they be a help in breaking you out of your rut? The next chapter will continue on this theme, by introducing two more ways your connections may be a source for your own personal breakthrough.

Sustain Your Game teaches you how to bring your A game to every area of your life. With advice from top CEOs, journalists, social scientists, and more, you’ll learn the framework for how to beat stress, stagnation, and burnout. Sustain Your Game will help you be the best in your arena, wherever that may be.

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