Whether you've just moved to a new city, are looking to expand your social circle or professional network, or even date, at some point we all find ourselves asking "what's the best way to build relationships?"
For most of us, we don't have to face this question until we're thrown out into the post-college world. Because, for our entire lives, we've had the systems in place to support building relationships — sports, clubs, dorms, classes, events, and plenty of time to explore.
However, once we leave this nest of neatly facilitated social activities, a lot of us (myself included) feel stuck. Avoiding the bite of loneliness, we wander from random meetup to random meetup, join sports leagues, go to happy hours, or simply latch onto relationships with our coworkers.
Despite these attempts, something feels missing. Despite the nice conversations, these potentially great relationships seem to go nowhere. Despite being more connected than ever digitally, we struggle to develop meaningful relationships without the systems we grew up with.
It wasn't until I found myself in this situation, alone again on a Friday night without any close friends to hash this dilemma out with, that I did some reflection.
Over the years, I've pieced together a view of the world that has helped me navigate the landscape of relationship development. Through my experiences moving every few years, attending boarding school, running events, and organizing (essentially) a mini commune in college, I knew that the way forward was to do what I had always done — create a system for myself.
However, what sort of system would make the most sense?
I could no longer rely on seeing the people I wanted to build a relationship with every day or even every week. This required a different approach.
This isolation I experienced served as a forcing function to evaluate all of my relationships to date and formed the belief I have now — that the best way to build relationships is through unique shared experiences.
When I think about the strongest relationships in my life, I don't think about the time spent hanging out at bars or grabbing coffees.
Instead, I recall the time we were riding mopeds across Oahu in the pitch black and pouring rain praying we wouldn't die; the emergency hospital trip we took after I accidentally ate a peanut and reluctantly used an epipen for the first time in the back of an Uber; the appreciation of the most beautiful summer sunset we'd ever seen while sailing in the Mediterranean followed by swimming in the perfectly warm water; the grungy weekend we spent at a music festival where every day was an adventure full of sounds, sunsets, and serendipity.
It was these memorable experiences that brought our relationship closer than any other time we spent together. And while there's an argument to be made for the value of time and exposure, it's hard to overlook the cases where experiences have turned complete strangers into some of my closest friends.
It's almost as if the experience itself provided all of the ingredients necessary for building a relationship.
Humor me for a minute.
If you graph out the interactions of your closest relationships, it's certain that amidst the coffees, dinners, and casual interactions, you had moments where your relationship rapidly deepened.
Maybe it was that road trip you took where you got stuck overnight in the snow, that camping trip where you got lost in the woods of Yosemite, or that pizza making workshop where the building caught on fire forcing you all to evacuate.
Whatever it was, there are clearly jumps in the history of your relationships. And it's these jumps that hint at how we should proceed — instead of relying on time and existing social structures, we can focus on having experiences that deepen our relationships.
By observing these jumps in our relationships thus far and intentionally focusing on these experiences moving forward, I believe we can rapidly build stronger, more intentional relationships.
This focus and process is what I call having "unique shared experiences."
While the intensity and depth of each experience may vary, unique shared experiences consist of three main elements:
It's experiences that combine these elements — unique shared experiences — that will strengthen existing or rapidly develop new relationships in your life.
While we'll generally get more mileage out of the more unique experiences, I'm not suggesting you send yourself into anaphylactic shock or feel compelled to backpack around Thailand just to build a relationship (although hit me up if you do). Nor do these experiences need to require a lot of money or time.
These experiences can be simple.
Hit an archery range, crush a morning workout in Central Park, or go on a sunrise hike. Maybe jam at a backyard concert, team up for a chili cook off, or go for a climb at the local bouldering gym.
Depending on the context, a relationship may start with a simple meal or drink. However, we can rapidly shift to integrate more unique experiences — gradually increasing the "uniqueness" over time.
Invite that person from last week's meetup to play a game of pickup basketball, then hit a comedy show a week later, then skydiving a month after that, and eventually work up to a backpacking trip.
At each progressive step, we're able to quickly filter the relationships that resonate with us — finding those that share our values, are interested in similar things, and most importantly are interested in investing in the relationship. From there we can optimize the time we're spending, doubling down on the people we want to go deeper with and sharing more and more unique experiences.
By putting ourselves in this mindset of having unique shared experiences, we'll find that we can accelerate the development of relationships. So much so that, depending on the combination of experiences, we may find that relationships we previously formed serendipitously over years can be formed intentionally in a matter of months.
While the concept is simple, the outcomes are not. The simple act of viewing your life and relationships through the lens of experiences you want to share can completely change how you connect with people.
As often as I can, I optimize for having unique shared experiences. I still grab coffees, go to dinners, parties, and even meetups. They're all great ways to start a relationship.
However, when I find myself wanting to go deeper, wanting to really connect with someone — whether it's a new friend, a date, my team, or even my family — I think about what sort of unique experiences we can share to take our relationship to the next level.
I challenge you to do the same.
Next time you want to deepen a relationship, instead of trying to grab drinks or leave things to chance, be intentional. Invite them to have a unique shared experience. This could be organizing a camping trip with a mix of old and new friends, teaming up for a Spartan Race, or booking a weekend trip to a new city (I hear Bellingham, WA is pretty great).
Whatever you do, get off the beaten path; go organize unique shared experiences that will create stories, break your context, and force you to be vulnerable with those around you.
Once you do, you'll realize just how quickly you're able to develop your relationships. Gone will be the days of wandering aimlessly from meetup to meetup or feeling compelled to join another sports league.
You now have a tool to build great relationships with anyone right at your fingertips, so go get started.
This unique shared experiences framework of mine is still a work in progress. It's my hope that by sharing it, maybe, just maybe, we can take this idea of sharing experiences and use it to transform how we all go about building relationships.
As you experiment with it, I'd love to hear from you about the experiences you have and the impact they've had on your relationships. Shoot me an email and if our paths happen to cross, perhaps we can grab coffee ;)
Appendix: Finding Experiences
You may find your wheels starting to turn on the types of experiences that you want to have. Perhaps you're asking yourself, "where can I find some of these unique experiences?"
Awesome. Before jumping in though, I want to provide two clarifications:
Make sense? Good. Now here are some starting points on finding experiences you want to have:
Once you've started to compile your list, share it. I've listed mine publicly here. You can do this as well (if you want random experiences with people on the internet) or keep it in a Google doc that you can constantly update and easily share.
Then go take the first few things and make them happen. As you get going, new ideas and experiences will come up and finding new things to do will become easier over time.
Major thanks to everyone I've shared an experience with so far, all of my friends who encouraged me to share this idea with the world, and to Clark Wiese, Sam Kern, Rishab Hegde, Kaitlyn Henry, and Madison Wiese for feedback on this essay.