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Welcome back to episode two in this new series, Fewer but Deeper: The Art of Meaningful Connections. In this series, we’re delving into an essential yet often overlooked aspect of our lives. That’s the profound impact of cultivating deep, meaningful relationships in a world just dominated by superficial connections, wretched contention, and non-essential distractions.
In each episode, we’ll explore the contrasts between an essentialist approach focusing on fewer but richer relationships and the pitfalls of a non-essentialist approach where quantity often overshadows quality. So I’ll be bringing you, hopefully, I think, surprising insights, unconventional strategies, but also things that are simple to implement, simple to begin.
Last week, the homework assignment was for you just to pay attention, just to look around at the ways in which non-essentialism was affecting your relationships, particularly because it’s so easy to see once you start looking for the way that technology interrupts and disrupts the relationships that really matter most. So, whether you’re looking to transform your personal relationships or to seek a more meaningful approach to your social life in general, Fewer but Deeper is your guide to rediscovering this lost art of connection. Better not to take this journey in this series alone. Share what is in this episode with others within the next 24 to 48 hours, so that you’re not just learning about relationships, you’re discussing relationships with your relationships. You could even go deeper and, having a themed conversation night, you could organize a gathering based on the meaningful themes of this series, and each participant shares their thoughts or stories related to the theme of the episode. This is a different kind of way of meeting with other people, but I think it leads to profound conversations that go beyond the everyday chatter.
In April 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope, which is a marvel of modern astronomy, was launched into the vastness of space. It promised to unveil the secrets of the universe like never before. Picture a giant eye crafted not of organic tissue but of ultra-low-expansion glass. It’s a 7.9-foot wide mirror designed to pierce the veil of the cosmos. So this isn’t just any mirror, either. It’s a rich creation, chasagrain that is a masterpiece of engineering, lightweight yet powerful enough to glimpse distant galaxies. And our own galaxy, which itself is not especially large in comparison to other galaxies, is so massive that it takes light 100,000 years to cross the galaxy. So just think of the vastness, just even just pause to imagine how massive it is out there and how little we have seen. And the furthest we have ever seen, at least we were promised, would be the cause of the Hubble Space Telescope.
However, soon after it was launched, a startling revelation dimmed its promise. The images Hubble sent back were unexpectedly blurry. Now, I don’t know about you, but I remember years ago when we used old cameras with the old film, and maybe you’re expectant of the pictures that you’re going to get back, and you get them, and then they’re all blurred. Or maybe light had got into the film, or someone had taken pictures over an existing film. You know there were problems like that sometimes, and those moments were disappointing. Or even now, if you maybe take a selfie in a big group and then you look at the photo and it’s a bit disappointing it’s blurred or it’s too light. These moments are minutely disappointing now. But just think about how bad the moment is when, after all that time and money and effort, this enormous team of people and an extended team at NASA finally get the first images back, and they’re blurry. That is a terrible moment.
They launch an investigation and they find that what’s happened is that the contractors who were tasked with the final touches on Hubble’s grand mirror miscalculated by a mere 1.3 millimeters. This minuscule error in the null corrector it’s called, a device crucial for shaping the mirror, was overlooked. And the result? The mirror was too flat at its edges, distorting the Hubble’s gaze. Much like a flawed human eye blurs vision.
So in human eyes, glasses or contacts correct such flaws. For Hubble, NASA embarked on a similar corrective mission. As the world watched, NASA’s team embarked on this incredible mission of precision and ingenuity. They developed the corrective optics space telescope axial replacement. COSTAR, they called it – a set of optics that acted like glasses, meticulously designed to correct the mirror’s flaw, and in December 1993, astronauts embarked on that daring spacewalk to install co-star.
The result was nothing short of miraculous. Those once blurry images transformed into crystal clear views of distant galaxies, nebula, and stars. Hubble, now with its vision corrected, was able to embark on its original journey of discovery, reshaping our understanding of the universe.
So this story about the Hubble space telescope can also apply, I think, to the subject at hand, to our relationships, because it illustrates how sometimes the smallest errors of perspective can make our relationships feel blurry, and also small adjustments, if we can understand what’s going wrong, can help make things much clearer.
So with the Hubble story as a backdrop, I want to just discuss some research but also then move to a very specific action that you can take, the homework assignment, let’s say, from today’s episode.
The research has its origins back in the 1950s and 1960s, originally developed by psychologist John Bowlby. It’s called the attachment theory, and perhaps you’ve heard of it, perhaps you’ve read quite a bit about it. Its most important tenet is that young children need to develop a key kind of relationship with at least one parent, of course, ideally two, and if not, that with other adults, but really it’s the relationship with the parents that is so critical to their social and emotional development. So the theory essentially states that the nature of those early bonds, particularly in the first few years of life, significantly influence our patterns of emotional regulation, social relationships, and behavior throughout our lives.
Attachment theory identifies four main styles of attachment. You’ve got secure attachment. That is pretty much what it sounds like. When you feel securely attached in those early years, you’re typically comfortable with creating attachment with other people. You can seek social support, you can maintain healthy, balanced relationships. You can develop healthy intimacy.
Another style is the anxious, preoccupied attachment. People who have this form of attachment often have a negative view of themselves but a positive view of others, and you can imagine how that might play out in their relationships.
A third style is dismissive, avoidant attachment, which is characterized by a positive view of oneself but a negative view of others, and so this can come when you’ve experienced rejection or emotional unavailability from parents in those key years, and people often cope by avoiding closeness or emotional connection with others.
And then the fourth type is fearful, avoidant attachment. This is where you have a negative view of both oneself and others, and this style often emerges from traumatic or abusive childhood experiences and what it produces is that people may desire close relationships but struggle with trusting others and managing their own emotions.
Okay, so there’s been loads of research that’s been done extensively since Bowlby’s time, and it’s influenced a whole wide range of therapeutic approaches, our understanding of interpersonal relationships, and so on. But the key thing is just to connect that the level of attachment has massive ramifications beyond what is obvious at first.
For example, I was just reading today some fascinating research where the author said, “Up to 40% of the patients in my obesity clinic were victims of child neglect.”
Now, presumably, that level of child neglect or even abuse is serious on the spectrum of disconnection, but it really gets me thinking and speaks to the problem where accidental non-essentialists are so busy on their phones, so caught up in their tasks, so running in reactivity, that they aren’t aware of their relationships until those relationships fall into serious trouble.
Now the truth, it seems to me, is that most people become essentialists in their relationships once those relationships become toxic enough, damaged enough, and on the verge of breakdown. Suddenly people tried to prioritize them. “Look at that. Oh my goodness, what’s happening here?”
And they can pour energy into the relationship at that point and I’m not saying that that’s wrong, but it’s suboptimal because that’s the most expensive time to do it. And we may find ourselves in the same position as the captain on the Titanic who knew for seven minutes the catastrophe that awaited him and he could do nothing about it, and that’s the worst possible situation to be in, in our relationships.
Essentialists are completely different in their relationships. They see relationships as essential in and of themselves, and they pursue deep relationships with those vital, few people that matter most, and they’re not waiting for catastrophe to pay attention to them, to really look at them. They see people early and often. They check in frequently about their relationships and the power of just seeing people, helping them to feel seen, heard, and known, and that what they are experiencing matters is disproportionately powerful.
I’m reminded now of a conversation in the movie Runaway Bride, where Ike Graham, played by Richard Gere, is having a conversation with his ex-wife, Ellie Graham, who’s played by Rita Wilson. They’re sitting down at the piano, and you can feel that whatever tension or resentment is not in the relationship anymore, or at least isn’t in this moment. And in that moment of openness and vulnerability, Ike turns to Ellie and says something like, “Did I just not see you? Is that what went wrong in our marriage? Did I just not see you?”
And Ellie becomes a little emotional and says, “Yes, you just didn’t see me.”
And that’s what essentialists do so well. They see people, they see what’s important, and they see what’s important to people before they have to.
And that brings us to the, therefore, what of it all. Last week, the homework was to start increasing your awareness of how our non-essentialist habits are impacting our relationships for the worse – just to notice it. And today’s homework assignment is similar but different. It’s to fill out a relationship scorecard.
Now, the point of this is to assess the quality and depth of relationships with people around you, and the simplest version of this is the following. I’ve done this for years now, especially with my family relationships. I will ask someone individually two questions: How am I doing on a scale of one to five? And whatever the answer, what can I do to make it a five? Or if they answer that they would give me a five, I say, ok, what can I do to make it better?
That’s it. That is the simplest version of a relationship scorecard, but it’s not nothing because if you do this frequently, let’s say, even once a month. Perhaps you advance from there and you’ll do a check-in once a week or so. This will act as an early warning system for you where you can find out that there’s a problem quickly and therefore make tiny adjustments along the way to make sure that that relationship is in good shape.
So that’s the smallest version of a relationship scorecard. Let’s expand it a little bit. I was just speaking with a senior executive from the largest online bank in the world, and he shared with me something that his mentor had shared with him. Now I’m going to share it with you. He called it a relationship ecosystem map, and it worked like this. First, you write down all of the people that you report to, so someone that’s above you in an organization, let’s say. Then you write down the names of your peers and then of your direct reports.
So that’s step one, just getting the ecosystem written down in front of you, so you’re looking at it, and then you go through each name on the list, and you give it a score of one to five. So it’s similar to what I’ve already shared with you, but in this case, he didn’t even ask the people. He just gave an estimate from his point of view.
In step three, you look at any relationship that has a three or lower, and you make a plan to improve that relationship.
He added this important point. He said, “People think relationships are organic, but then they get into trouble.”
And the trouble that he’s talking about is the trouble that relationships deteriorate organically as well. So if all you’re ever doing is the organic version of a relationship, do not be surprised when those relationships are actually deteriorated to a point that surprises you because the normal everyday life of living together with imperfect people like me, like you, means that a relationship is getting hit day in and day out. So if you’re just organic about it, assuming that it will always work, it won’t. As a mentor to me put it, marriage is easy if you work hard at it and hard if you work easy at it. Well, that can easily be applied to every relationship in our lives. It’s hard if we work easy at it and easy if we work hard at it.
So there’s just one more piece I want to add to this idea of the relationship scoreboard, and that’s the depth of the evaluation. The scoreboard can evolve. I’ve given you the simplest possible version of it, but of course, you could give scores of one to five on a variety of criterion. You could say well, in a score of one to five, how well do we communicate? On a score of one to five, how appreciated do I feel? You could ask, on a score of one to five, how deep is our connection right now? So you can keep evolving and increasing the specificity of the scorecard based on your knowledge of the individual.
But I don’t want to overwhelm you because I don’t think that helps anybody. I really want to start at the most effortless version of the scorecard and that really is the homework from today’s episode.
So, as we conclude episode two of Fewer but Deeper: The Art of Meaningful Connections, let’s reflect on the journey we’ve taken today.
Our story began with the Hubble Space Telescope as a symbol of human ambition and precision, but also its miraculous adjustment that transformed blurred images into clear views of the cosmos, and the idea was that this narrative could serve as a metaphor for the fine-tuning required in our relationships.
We delved into the importance of connection, deep connection, attachment, in other words, in our relationships and, therefore, how important it is to get timely and accurate information back from the people that matter most to us, to not wait until the relationship is floundering, to not act as if we see clearly and really we don’t.
We explored how essentialists and non-essentialists approach relationships and how the non-essentialists just get blind. They’re not getting feedback at all because they’re so busy doing stuff to even notice the relationship, whereas an essentialist is highly attuned. They’re trying to get that clear and accurate feedback constantly, weekly, perhaps monthly in certain relationships.
As our action step, the relationship scorecard is an invite to each of us to become active participants in shaping the quality of our connections and the depth of our connections. It’s a simple approach to be able to more quickly get clear feedback so that we can adjust in small and simple ways to improve the quality and depth of the relationships of the people who matter most.
What is one thing that stood out to you in today’s episode? What is one thing that you can do differently as a result of this episode? Perhaps it’s the homework assignment that I’ve given you, but maybe something else has come to you that should take priority, and who can you share this with? Could you perhaps hold some kind of themed conversation with one or a group of people around the subject of making fewer but deeper relationships about the art of meaningful connections?
Thank you, really. Thank you for joining me on this journey of discovery. We’ll be moving into the next episode, where we’ll continue to explore the art of building meaningful relationships in a world that often deprioritizes them in favor of the utterly superficial. I’ll see you next time.