Social Bankruptcy

For the past several months, I’ve been going through a social reboot. This involves consciously reassessing my social life and deciding what connections and social habits to maintain and what to change.

But this year I’ve decided to go further with this process and declare outright social bankruptcy. This is an area of my life that was far enough off track that changing it for the better is closer to starting over from scratch than making modifications to an existing structure. It’s more analogous to changing careers than it is to tweaking an existing career.

I could see that my social life was becoming exceedingly unbalanced. It was a source of many stimulating connections, but the overall big picture wasn’t working very well.

While many people have trouble with physical clutter piling up, the main source of clutter in my life has been social clutter, most of which flowed into my life as a result of having a popular website/blog and having many open doors on the Internet through which people could easily connect with me.

Initially I thought that being so accessible was a good thing. I liked having an open door policy. To do otherwise seemed like it would be too cold and aloof.

In the beginning that open door policy worked okay, but too much of a good thing can eventually become a curse.

A Gift or a Curse?

Imagine if people starting coming to your house and bringing you gifts because they want to express their appreciation.

At first, you may receive their gifts with gratitude. How nice of them. How lucky you are to receive such abundance.

Now imagine that the gifts keep coming, year after year and with increasing frequency.

Eventually you start seeing patterns in the gifts. The same types of items appear dozens, then hundreds of times. What was once a delightful surprise now becomes routine and predictable.

Soon you stop bothering to open some of the gifts. You can tell what they are from the outside packaging. You don’t need what’s inside since you’ve received similar items many times before. You may still appreciate the sentiment, but the gifts themselves no longer hold much value to you.

You start running out of space to store the gifts. They pile up. You shove them in closets and fill your garage with them. And they just keep coming.

You can reasonably expect that this pattern will continue for many more years to come. It isn’t going to stop on its own. You begin to dread the treadmill you find yourself on.

All the while, people follow up to ask you about the gifts you received. At first you really are appreciative. Then you become indifferent. Then you may feel resentful. You may try to feign appreciation from behind that resentment in order to be polite, but it isn’t always easy. After a sufficient amount of time elapses, the gifts are entirely unwanted. As new gift bringers arrive, you stop answering the door as often.

Due to the asymmetrical nature of these interactions, those individual gift givers can’t see any problem with it. They always feel they’re doing a good deed. And so if you aren’t appreciative each time, they quickly jump to the conclusion that there must be something wrong with you.

So what do you do?

You could ask people to stop bringing gifts, but whom do you tell if it’s different people each time?

You could hire someone to process the gifts for you, but why pay someone to process what you don’t even want? This would also do a disservice to the gift givers since you’d never personally receive and appreciate their gifts. They probably wouldn’t have brought the gifts if they expected their gifts would merely be processed by an assistant. They intended the gifts to be personal.

Social connections are like gifts. In small quantities they’re precious, and it’s easy to appreciate them. In vast quantities, however, they can become a curse.

I hit that curse level a long time ago and did my best to manage it, but eventually I realized that it was a no-win situation, and I had to make some fundamental changes. I couldn’t just get better at processing the gifts that arrived. I had to stop the gifts from showing up altogether. I had to eliminate the curse aspects and get back to a more reasonable level of interaction.

Declaring Social Bankruptcy

It took a while to accept it, but eventually I realized I had to declare social bankruptcy. I’d gone too far down a path that wasn’t working. I could see that it was time to get off that path entirely.

I began to think about what kind of social life I’d create for myself these days if I had the opportunity to start over completely from scratch. I imagined that nobody on earth knew who I was. What if I didn’t have email… or a website… or any social media pages… or a phone number?

What would I consciously decide to add back? What would I avoid recreating?

I still like writing, so I’d keep that. I like speaking too, so I’d recreate that as well.

But there are some items I wouldn’t recreate, at least not in the same way they’re present in my life today.

One of those things would be email. I’d keep it for some very limited usage, but I wouldn’t use email as my primary business communication tool. I’d reduce my email usage by at least 90% and check it maybe once or twice a week, with perhaps 15 minutes of usage time per week. I wouldn’t have an assistant process a bunch of messages for me. I’d set it up so hardly anyone would message me. I’d only receive emails that I wanted to receive, from people I wanted to be able to email me.

Another thing I wouldn’t recreate would be online interactions with people regarding my articles, including comments, questions, and discussions. Reading feedback can be stimulating at times, but I don’t find it inspiring or fulfilling, and it certainly isn’t necessary. Life itself gives me all the feedback I require. It’s fine if people want to discuss and share what I’ve posted on their own, but I don’t need to participate in those discussions. By the time I’ve posted something, I’ve already moved on to the next thing. For me writing is a process of letting go. To write is to release. If I get involved in discussions about my past work, my attention is pulled back to where I’ve been, and I experience greater levels of attachment. I’d rather keep my attention on where I am and where I’m going.

If I’m going to discuss anything work-related, it’s more interesting to discuss what I’m inspired to explore next. It’s easier for me — and more fulfilling as well — to have such discussions with friends face to face. So again the online element is superfluous.

In the long run, my open door approach to connecting with readers was a bust. I tried modifying the parameters of that open door — for years — but eventually I had to close that door altogether. Life is a lot simpler without all that social clutter.

Closing some of those doors was tough to do at first, but now I’m far enough along with this contraction process that I wish I’d done this years ago.

I’m also revamping the way I use email, including killing off old email addresses and reserving email for a lower volume of communication henceforth.

Obligation vs. Freedom

There are several themes that run through this social rebooting process. One involves eliminating social obligations and expectations and replacing them with freedom of choice.

My social life has been overburdened with perceived obligations. People who have a social connection with me frequently expect that our connection entitles them to something from me, such as a reply to their emails or advice when they request it.

In small quantities that isn’t a problem, but in the quantities I’ve experienced this, it’s too far over on the curse side.

So as part of declaring social bankruptcy, I’m erasing any social debt people feel I owe them as a result of our past connections.

Feeling obligated to live up to other people’s expectations isn’t how I wish to manage my social life. I wish to experience a social life based on freedom of choice by all involved, where no one feels they have the right to leverage our connection to obligate the other person.

Freedom must still be balanced with responsibility, so if I’ve freely chosen to obligate myself in some way, such as entering a business contract or making a verbal agreement with someone, I’ll honor that of course. But I’m not going to let those unspoken obligations creep back into my social life, where people feel they’re entitled to something from me just because they exist in my reality.

If certain people can’t handle this and wish to complain about it, I’m not going to maintain a serious connection with them. The types of people I like interacting with already feel similarly anyway, so I’m not losing anything I value here.

Online vs. Offline

The second shift involves doing more of what fulfills me and less of what doesn’t fulfill me.

I love connecting with people face to face. Occasional video-Skyping is okay too. But typing individual messages to people has grown pretty stale. And if I have a lot of messages to read and reply to, that just feels burdensome.

So I’m deliberately axing almost all of my one-on-one communication via the Internet. And I’m replacing it with more face to face social interaction.

I’m making this change not only for personal socializing but for business networking as well. I may use email to help maintain some connections, but I’m essentially closing the door to new business connections that arrive by email. New business contacts will have to meet me in person, and that will essentially mean they’ll have to come through organically via my existing social network. It will be exceedingly difficult for cold callers to reach me personally.

Incompatible vs. Compatible

The third shift has to do with the types of people that I connect with on a regular basis.

The bulk of people who’ve gotten in touch with me in the past were readers of my blog, Internet marketers, and the press. In small doses these interactions are normally fine, but in larger quantities it can get a little crazy.

As part of declaring social bankruptcy, I felt it wise to close the door on these types of interactions via the Internet, so I could create some space to reassess my social life without so many distractions piling up.

During this quiet time, I realized that I didn’t wish to recreate the reader-based interactions. These are too often interactions where people put me on a pedestal and place themselves on a perceived lower tier as they interact with me. It’s not a big deal when it’s a temporary thing like during a workshop weekend, but it’s not something I like having in my life on a daily basis. These interactions provide little value to me, and they encourage me to keep revisiting the past instead of focusing on new challenges. If you think my decision to cut these people off is selfish, that’s because it is.

Sometimes I’ve even said to people, “Please don’t do the fanboy thing with me.” While I’m sure some people draw energy from having others look up to them, I find it very unnatural when adults behave like that towards me. I prefer it when people connect with me as equals.

Regarding Internet marketers who approach me primarily because they want something from me, I’m not going to lose any sleep over shedding those connections. These types of approaches are very common online, but they’re much less frequent in person. And in person it’s much easier to help the person get past their fake salesy persona and behave a bit more naturally.

Connecting with the press might seem to be a wise door to keep open for business reasons, but after doing so many interviews, I don’t see much value in continuing the practice. Mainstream journalists and the publications they represent are too often a mismatch for my message. They have an overwhelming tendency to want to reduce everything to cutesy sound bites, and they frequently get the sound bites wrong anyway. These people are almost invariably over-stressed and harried, so they can only crank out incredibly shallow work that provides little or no long-term value. Most publications of this nature don’t provide a compatible medium for a message about conscious living.

So as I declare social bankruptcy on these types of connections, what’s left?

I thought about the kinds of friends I want to keep in my life, as well as new friends I’d like to attract. These include people with qualities and values such as:

  1. Freedom – people who maintain free and flexible lifestyles and have control over their schedules (can’t connect with people who aren’t available)
  2. Self-Sufficiency – high-functioning people who can take care of themselves (not needy, clingy, or high maintenance)
  3. Happiness – people who are generally happy and fulfilled with their lives
  4. Growth – people who value growth above security (security-minded people are very boring)
  5. Courage – people who seek to identify and face their fears; people who are following their “path with a heart”
  6. Offbeat – people whom others might label as weird, quirky, or unusual (I like social rebels; the social conformists don’t seem particularly sane)

There are lots of people in my life who will claim to value these qualities, but not as many can claim to be living them. People who are living up to their values tend to have a certain peacefulness about them that’s a joy to connect with.

I’ve been maintaining many partial matches in my social network, i.e. people who have enough compatibility to create a connection with me but not enough to maintain a mutually fulfilling relationship in the long run. These partial matches are relative dead ends though, and they crowd out more compatible connections.

As part of this bankruptcy process, I’m reassessing each connection in my social network as if it’s a brand new connection opportunity that just showed up for the first time. I’m letting go of past social baggage with certain people and asking myself if it makes sense to include them in my social map today. At the same time, I’m raising my standards with respect to the types of connections I’ll invite in and maintain.

Quantity to Quality

In previous years I’ve had lots of relatively shallow connections in my life and a handful of deep ones. But virtually all the joy and fulfillment comes from the deeper connections. So I’ve decided to release most of those shallow connections and invest more time and energy in creating and maintaining deeper connections but with fewer people.

I don’t find it difficult to create and maintain deeper connections, but when there’s too much social clutter in my life, it keeps me flailing around in the shallow end of the pool more often than I’d like.

Instead of maintaining a large but loose social network, I’m dumping that model and replacing it with a much smaller, tighter social network. I seek fewer friends, but deeper and more compatible connections.

Having an extensive social network with loose ties with lots of people may seem like a good thing to some people, but I haven’t found much fulfillment in that model. Breadth is no substitute for depth.

I think the main mistake I made here was assuming that having a bigger funnel at the top would result in deeper connections at the bottom. It doesn’t work that way in practice, however. Shallow connections rarely evolve into deeper ones. Deep connections frequently avoid the funnel altogether. When truly compatible people show up, we tend to click right away — within a matter of hours. For the most part, either we click right away, or we don’t. There is no funnel.

As part of this process, I’ve been going through my Google Contacts and making liberal use of the delete function. I figure that if I haven’t contacted someone in 6 months or more, I probably don’t need their contact info.

Having fewer contacts to maintain simplifies my life and makes it easier to focus on connections I wish to maintain. If I ever really need the info for a deleted contact, I can always get it through some other means, like searching my email archives or requesting it from someone.

After a few passes, I was able to reduce my contacts down to 64 people. My goal was to get it down to 30 or less. With a couple more passes, I got it down to 28.

I may gradually build it back up to around 40 or so, but I’m in no rush. It’s nice to see the whole list fit on one screen for the first time ever. No scrollbar.

Contraction, Then Expansion

Having been through a financial bankruptcy many years ago, I can tell you that declaring bankruptcy isn’t such a terrible thing. When you go bankrupt, you shed what clearly isn’t working for you. For me it was a very liberating experience.

I find this social bankruptcy process equally liberating. It’s obviously not the same thing as a financial bankruptcy, but the energetic effect is similar. Old obligations and expectations are released. Hope and optimism replace feelings of overwhelm and disappointment.

I’m looking forward to rebuilding a positive and supportive social life this year, practically from the ground up. Having such an active social life for so many years, even if it wasn’t particularly fulfilling, gave me a lot of clarity about what I want to experience in this part of my life instead.

Initially I hoped to transition directly from where I was to where I wanted to go. But I couldn’t get that approach to work. The old patterns were too strong, and I didn’t have enough clarity about where to go next. It’s like being in a job you don’t like, but you’re still unsure about what you might do instead or how to make it work. You have to quit the old job first, break free of its distractions and conditioning effects, and take some reflective time to get in touch with what you’ve learned and what you want. Then you can take steps to create something new. There may be some negative side effects to this approach, but they’re worth it. Staying stuck in a no-win situation is worse.

In a similar vein, I eventually accepted I had to undergo a social contraction first before I’d have any hope of creating something better. I couldn’t transition directly from planet A to planet B because planet A’s gravity was too strong. I had to leave planet A behind first, then explore a bit in order to identify planet B and plot a course to it.

I’m in that exploratory phase now, which is a refreshing change. As I shared above, I have more clarity about what I want to experience next, but I’m in no rush to get there. I’m still shedding bits and pieces of the old planet A, and I feel very relieved as I watch it recede further into the past. My social life is quieter and simpler than it’s been in years, and I’m taking advantage of this peaceful period to get back in touch with myself.

Ho’oponopono It

When I was at the Transformational Leadership Council retreat in Kona, Hawaii last week, we did an interesting Ho’oponopono exercise that included writing an exhaustive list of anyone and anything from the past that we still felt a lingering attachment to. At the end of the exercise, we tore up our lists, a symbolic way of shedding those attachments. This doesn’t mean shedding those people from one’s life. It just means releasing any unconscious attachments to them, so you can make a freer and more conscious choice about how to relate (or not relate) to them thereafter. At least that was my understanding of the exercise.

At the time I did that exercise, I didn’t sense that anything special had happened. It was a nice gesture but not particularly transformational for me. However, when I returned to Vegas several days later, I could tell that something had shifted in my attitudes towards certain people. I could more easily distinguish the aspects of those connections that I was freely inviting vs. those aspects that had become riddled with unconscious expectations and obligations. I felt a greater sense of freedom to relate on the basis of choice while releasing any lingering loyalty to the expectation side. I felt more empowered to relate to people as my true self without worrying about their reactions.

I think that deciding to stop participating in traditional holiday gift exchanges as I shared in yesterday’s post was one result of this Ho’oponopono process. I might have gotten around to it eventually, but I feel this process helped speed things along. I was able to get it done without worrying about other people’s reactions. I saw that it was more important to be true to myself and stop trying to satisfy other people’s expectations of me.

As I allow myself to explore this delightfully peaceful space of fresh possibilities, I’m already noticing new doors opening. Part of me wants to dive in and explore some of them, while another part of me wants to hold off and enjoy the silence a bit longer. I’m sure I’ll begin to explore some of those alternative paths soon enough, but the most important thing for me right now is to explore in an unattached, noncommittal way. I want to experience a social life where each relationship feels like a fresh choice made anew, not an obligation to remain loyal to the past.

When it’s obvious that some part of your life isn’t working, stop. Release what isn’t working. Then choose another path. People will squawk at you, but you’ll be happier on the other side.