Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, March 6, 2023
by Neil Senturia
I have a high school reunion coming up in a few months. There is zero chance of my sharing the number, but the question is, should I go? Statistically, about 30 percent of a graduating class attends reunions. And as you all know, there is a certain self-selecting relationship here, namely that the most successful people tend to be the ones that go to the most reunions.
However, regardless of net worth, not going might be missing out on a valuable opportunity. Harvard professors Michael Norton and Alison Wood Brooks have some advice on the subject of our need for partners, acquaintances, colleagues and friends.
Their thesis is that people need to think about investments in social relationships the same way they think about stocks and bonds — the importance of diversification. Norton says that spending time with family members and close friends is “positively associated with well-being.” Save for the occasional maniac brother-in-law.
On the other hand, he says that “interactions with random strangers can sometimes make us happier than interacting with our partner or spouse.” The reason for that is you already know the buttons not to push, and all is smooth.
Norton goes on, “The variety that being with strangers provides can push us to make more of an effort and can spark new connections.” At networking events, the tendency is to gravitate to those we already know, but the potential for real value is to reach out to strangers. You have to work at participating and by effort, increasing a more diverse “social portfolio.”
There is a curmudgeonly and famous Stanford professor, Jeffrey Pfeffer, who says that “people to whom you are weakly connected are more valuable than those to whom you have strong connections.” He argues that we need to engage with “non-redundant information,” which is the kind you often get from strangers, and not from the usual suspects at the golf club or Rotary.
Now, to the crux of the matter of the reunion. Here is the story. Two members of my graduating class of 65 boys, (no girls, which explains everything, but that is for another column) decided to ask the members to recount their lives since high school, and they gathered about 50 mini autobiographies. They published them in a small book. (New York Times best-seller list, fear not.)
The distribution of stories was fascinating. As you would suspect, the guy who was the genius became a famous eye doctor, the guy who was a member of the lucky sperm club bought a baseball team, but the “road less traveled guys,” the ones who did not excel academically, who didn’t win any awards or notice during their stay, pleasantly surprised me. Even the ones who had ignored or tormented me.
When I read about their lives, many of them ended up successful and happy. Not Wall Street titans and not captains of industry, but fulfilled, with wives, partners, children. The stuff of life. Their stories had a balance of enough economic success with a wide diversity of life choices and experiences. They were at peace with their journey.
At one of the earlier reunions, I spent a lot of time with a couple of these “not my gang” folks, and their thoughts on multiple topics fascinated me. I was not listening in an echo chamber. I was pushed out of my comfort zone. I came away from the interactions surprisingly feeling better about the world and the people in it.
The point being made by both Norton and Pfeffer is that we need to create interactions that are both “old acquaintances” as well as the local barista, the person at the library, the construction worker on your street.
Norton says, “an hour here or there” will surprise you and add some happiness. Personally, I love the random interaction. I can learn a person’s whole life story in a ride down an elevator (high rise), if I ask the right question and listen.
And as to that reunion, I am going. There are a couple of jerks I am looking forward to seeing again and rubbing their nose in it.
“When I was in junior high school, the teachers voted me the student most likely to end up in the electric chair.” — Sylvester Stallone
Rule No. 218:
Grand passion and relentless pursuit will take you further than good grades.