The last time someone told you that you were hanging out with the wrong people was probably when you were 14 years old. But Australian life coach Bella Zanesco isn’t talking about bad influences or smoking behind the bike sheds; what she’s saying is that the right people can make you feel more positive and fulfil your potential. She’s talking about consciously building a support system for life, made up of six key close friends. And they may or may not include Kate, who you’ve known since you were 12, or Megan, your rock when things go tits up at work.
Zanesco began to think about what makes an essential friend while in the midst of rebuilding her life from a painful break-up and breakdown. As part of her drive to feel better for the rest of her life, she turned her life – and, later, that of her coaching clients – into a real-life experiment and now a book of advice, Smart Girls Screw Up Too.
Zanesco’s theory of six friends is based on the work of the anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who you might have heard of. “Dunbar’s number” says that you can only maintain 150 relationships in your life – and only five close ones, the mates you can call on in a crisis. Zanesco also adapted the Japanese concept of “Moia”, the social support groups thought to be one of the reasons for the super longevity of the people from Okinawa, Japan. “I started an experiment where I analysed the relationships I had and the relationships my clients had, and started to understand exactly what types of people people need.” Looking at what worked for her clients, she was able to boil the number of friends needed down to six.
To a Brit, choosing friends for what they can do for you sounds pretty mercenary, I say to Zanesco. What happens to your other mates? You know, the ones you actually like? You can keep them, she tells me – but think of them being an outer circle, part of the 150, not the inner six.
If you think someone is going to be one of your six, but they aren’t interested, what happens then? Zanesco says it doesn’t matter – rejection is simply either that “someone doesn't see the value that you bring”, or they “see value but don't see the value in it right now”. So, don’t take it personally.
What happens to your other mates? You know, the ones you actually like? You can keep them, she tells me – but think of them being an outer circle, part of the 150, not the inner six
It still seems an odd thing to do, to not let friends happen organically, to basically audition them for what they can do for you. But Zanesco makes it sound logical, explaining it in terms of setting up your life so you’re best supported. “Each of these people nurtures a different part of you,” she says, “and you nurture a different part of each of your friends. It’s like this beautiful cycle,” she says.
So, the people Zanesco says you need in your life are as follows:
1 The Catalyst
This is a person who changes you, who inspires transformation, makes you see new opportunities.
2 The Player
The person you call on to have fun; they stop you being boring.
3 The Nurturer
Your surrogate mum. The person you run to for a cry or when you’re overwhelmed.
4 The Inspirer
Every conversation you have with this person leaves you full of new thoughts and ideas, plus a sense of possibility.
5 The Challenger
You have deep conversations that challenge you to see the world (and yourself) in a new way.
6 The Lover
The mate who loves you, no matter what.
7 The Maker
This one is optional, as it’s your partner.
So, if you are missing one of these people, what do you do? “You’ll find these people while doing things you're passionate about,” she says. And how do you know when someone fits into one of the friend slots? “You can ask yourself: do I feel nurtured or challenged or inspired? But you will probably recognise each one immediately. It’s about naturally knowing how you feel around each person.” And the upshot will be: the more time you spend with that person, who makes you feel inspired, fun, loved or challenged, the more of that positive feeling you get in your life. Maybe auditioning for friends isn’t such a bad idea?
Smart Girls Screw Up Too: The No-Nonsense Guide To Creating The Life You Want by Bella Zanesco is published by Wiley