How to Maintain Strong Friendships as You Move Through Your Career
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Careers Jun 6, 2017

How to Main­tain Strong Friend­ships as You Move Through Your Career

What the sci­ence of regret says about work – life bal­ance and pri­or­i­tiz­ing close relationships.

A woman maintains close connections and friendships throughout her career thus avoiding regret down the line.

Lisa Röper

Based on the research and insights of

Neal J. Roese

For many on ambi­tious career paths, long hours — and maybe a relo­ca­tion or two — are a giv­en. And while those may be good choic­es, says Neal Roese, a pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at the Kel­logg School, keep in mind that if your clos­est friend­ships are a casu­al­ty of your busy sched­ule, you will like­ly come to regret it.

Roese is a lead­ing expert in the sci­ence of regret, how to avoid it, and how to use it to make choic­es that will bring you sat­is­fac­tion in the long run. 

There’s a ten­den­cy to neglect one of the most impor­tant aspects of our well-being, which is our con­nec­tion to oth­ers,” says Roese, author of the book If Only. We’re find­ing that peo­ple fre­quent­ly regret los­ing these per­son­al connections.”

Non­ro­man­tic rela­tion­ships are par­tic­u­lar­ly sus­cep­ti­ble to benign neglect. We all under­stand that we need to invest in our rela­tion­ship with our spouse or part­ner,” says Roese. What might be not so obvi­ous is that main­tain­ing close friend­ships takes effort, too, and that the effort is worth it.”

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So what can even the busiest among us do to keep our friends close and our life as regret-free as pos­si­ble? Roese offers some research-backed strategies.

Know Thy­self — and the Lim­its of Facebook

We all desire secu­ri­ty, pur­pose, romance, part­ner­ship, and ful­fill­ing work. Yet when these dri­ves col­lide — the dri­ve to search for ful­fill­ing work ver­sus, say, a desire to stay con­nect­ed to the peo­ple already around us — we do not always choose what would ulti­mate­ly have made us happiest. 

Peo­ple aren’t nec­es­sary good at pre­dict­ing their own emo­tion­al reac­tions to the out­comes of the choic­es they make,” Roese says. In ret­ro­spect, how­ev­er, they can see what mat­tered most.” 

And what does mat­ter most? While plen­ty of pro­fes­sion­als have career- and edu­ca­tion-relat­ed regrets, Roese’s own research finds that some of our most intense regrets have to do with los­ing touch with friends. 

For Roese, this means peo­ple should work hard­er to main­tain the rela­tion­ships that mean the most to them — and not just by lik­ing someone’s vaca­tion pho­tos on Face­book. What we see is a long­ing for a close con­nec­tion,” he says. In the age of social media, we can call lots of peo­ple friends, but what peo­ple miss when they’ve lost [that close con­nec­tion] is a friend close enough to share inti­mate life details with. This is com­mon with friend­ships that were impor­tant to peo­ple in their twen­ties and that fall away in their for­ties or fifties. Peo­ple in their twen­ties might not real­ize how many life forces will push them away from their friends as they get older.”

Put In the Effort

One of the sim­plest ways to pre­serve a close friend­ship is to make a point of keep­ing it on your schedule. 

As peo­ple start get­ting caught up in work and fam­i­ly life, the first thing to go is the week­ly or month­ly beer you used to have with your friend,” Roese says. 

This tends to be espe­cial­ly tricky for men. There is an inter­est­ing gen­der dif­fer­ence in the lit­er­a­ture on how peo­ple keep friend­ships, Roese explains. Women are bet­ter at pre­serv­ing one-on-one con­nec­tions, known — to social psy­chol­o­gists, any­way — as dyads. Dyadic con­nec­tions are a spe­cial­ty of women,” Roese says, where­as men tend to be bet­ter at form­ing small groups, such as sports teams. Men need an extra nudge to pre­serve time for one-on-one friendships.”

Regret hurts, and so our imme­di­ate reac­tion is often to ignore it. But you might also lis­ten to the sig­nal that’s inside that regret.”

Be Ambi­tious but Pre­serve What You Value

But pre­serv­ing friend­ships does not nec­es­sar­i­ly mean lim­it­ing one’s ambi­tion or refus­ing to chase oppor­tu­ni­ties that might dis­rupt one’s sense of com­mu­ni­ty. In fact, the lit­er­a­ture around regret sug­gests that risk-tak­ers are reward­ed with greater feel­ings of satisfaction. 

There’s plen­ty of research to show that when we have an oppor­tu­ni­ty and take it, we’re less like­ly to feel regret­ful, because we’re very good at rec­on­cil­ing our­selves to what unfolds. When we don’t take oppor­tu­ni­ties, how­ev­er, we’re haunt­ed by what might have been.” 

In one study by Kel­logg pro­fes­sor Vic­to­ria Med­vec, for instance, 83% of respon­dants named some­thing they had not done as their sin­gle most regret­table action over their entire lives. 

So it cer­tain­ly pays to take the oppor­tu­ni­ties that come along, even if they put you on a slight­ly itin­er­ant path. The key is find­ing ways to make per­son­al con­nec­tions wher­ev­er you are, and pre­serv­ing the ones you val­ue most. 

Roese rec­om­mends look­ing beyond work­mates and col­leagues. If there’s a way to move to a new city and make friends out­side your area of work, that can be more nour­ish­ing, in part because if some­thing is going bad at work, you have some­one who’s a more sym­pa­thet­ic ear for you. You can share inti­mate details with­out giv­ing your­self away.” 

This is where social media real­ly can help — it’s eas­i­er than ever to con­nect to peo­ple who share your inter­ests and hob­bies,” says Roese. 

Reach Out for Need­ed Perspective

Roese also has advice for how we should rely on the close friend­ships we have man­aged to main­tain. In addi­tion to con­nec­tion, he says, close friend­ships offer much need­ed per­spec­tive. As we reflect on our lives and our accom­plish­ments, our friends can often see more clear­ly than we can the ways in which we have already succeeded.

We don’t always do this well,” Roese says. Too often, we imme­di­ate­ly imag­ine the ide­al — what’s the best pos­si­ble out­come. But we stop there. We don’t take the time to pat our­selves on the back and feel a lit­tle bit bet­ter about all the great things we did.”

A clas­sic exam­ple of this comes from anoth­er study by Vic­tor­i­ca Med­vec. In a paper pub­lished after the 1992 Olympic games, she and her coau­thors eval­u­at­ed pho­tos of ath­letes on the vic­to­ry podi­um and found that bronze-medal win­ners expressed more pos­i­tive emo­tions than sil­ver medalists. 

The bronze medal­ist com­pares down­ward and sees how eas­i­ly they could have missed get­ting a medal at all, which made them bet­ter appre­ci­ate what they had actu­al­ly achieved,” Roese says. The sil­ver medal­ist looks upward to miss­ing out on the gold, and so feels a bit worse because of miss­ing out on an ide­al outcome.”

When reflect­ing on our past, and mak­ing deci­sions about the future, using close friends as clear-eyed sound­ing boards can pre­vent us from mak­ing choic­es we will lat­er regret. 

It’s Nev­er Too Late

And for those who do drift away from their friends — it’s nev­er too late to be in touch. One of Roese’s cen­tral insights is that regret is not sim­ply a way to tor­ture one­self on a sleep­less night; it can also be an oppor­tu­ni­ty to change cer­tain behav­iors in a rea­son­able and tar­get­ed way. 

Regret hurts,” he says, and so our imme­di­ate reac­tion is often to ignore it. But you might also lis­ten to the sig­nal that’s inside that regret, and the sig­nal might rep­re­sent a les­son, or a use­ful ker­nel of truth if you crack open the shell. There’s always time to change your behavior.”

Featured Faculty

Neal J. Roese

John L. and Helen Kellogg Professor of Marketing, and Professor of Psychology, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences

About the Writer

Drew Calvert is a freelance writer based in Iowa City.

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