June 6, 2013

Summer in the City: Avoiding Isolation

Congratulations to all the new graduates of the class of 2013! Your prospects upon graduation are way way better than mine were even two years ago. I am sure lots of you (especially business majors) graduated with an offer in-hand. You're going to be moving in a few short weeks to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Raleigh, Washington D.C., Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Las Vegas, Cincinnati, wherever, to start your actual adulthood.

That's awesome! You should be excited and optimistic and ready to have a whole new set of adventures and good times. But one of the most important things that people forget to tell you is how lonely it is to move to a completely new place, especially if you've been comfortably surrounded by longtime friends up until this point. Cities are places where suddenly the population density skyrockets, yes, but they can also leave you isolated. It's hard to break into groups, and just lingering on the edge of a bar can be uncomfortable.

Frankly: most people don't find themselves in a situation where they have to start from scratch for friends. And chances are you won't have to, either, not really. But in case you do have to start from square one, here's some tips on how to minimize that loneliness.

1. Facebook

Good old Facebook. (It's sad that I can say that, frankly, but Facebook turns 10 in a couple of years, holy smokes!) While Facebook is nothing if not the realm of the Fair Weather Friend, it's also a great place to start looking for people you already know who are or will be in your new area.

Facebook's Groups function is pretty awesome for this. You can use it to filter out people by where they've indicated they're located. From there, Facebook will show you anyone who's within that metro area. If you're moving to, say, Peoria, IL, and can't think of anyone in the area, it's possible Facebook can.

Clicking "MORE" or "Create Group" (as circled in red above) will take you to the groups page, where you can filter your friends by location, interests, etc. It's actually a pretty handy tool....assuming the entire site doesn't get redesigned in a week!

Reach out to friends, plan a lunch or catch-up session over coffee (or other adult beverage) and stay positive.

2. University Alumni Association

This was a huge mistake I made, one I want other to learn from. The minute you're in a new area, and if you didn't hate your university at all, if in fact you liked most of the people you encountered while in higher education, seek out your alumni association. Aside from hosting cool events and fun networking things, they'll also put you in contact with people who are in your area that would be happy to add you to their fold.

These will often also be people who've been living in your new hometown for at least a year. They'll be able to offer you everything from bar and restaurant suggestions to apartment advice, names of doctors and dentists and beauticians, and everything in between. It's always helpful to have someone who knows the city push you in a direction when you first start exploring; an alumni network can connect you with that person.

I've made some awesome connections through my alumni network, people whose help and advice I could have used a year ago. Tap into yours, I'm certain you'll be surprised by what -- and who! -- you find.

3. Meetup.com

Meetup is a pretty simple premise: find something you like and meet other people who like that, too. And it's awesome.

Meetup lets you do basically what university did for you organically: meet people who like stuff you like based on things you do. Hang out with people, do a fun thing, become better friends with them. Like I said, it's a fairly simple concept that can be amazingly powerful when you're feeling overwhelmed and alone in a new place. When you sign up, you pick a bunch of your interests and Meetup will generate a list of potential meetup groups that might interest you. You can read through group descriptions and cycle through categories and find a group to match your interests. Whether it's Latin@s Who Knit or BASE Jumpers Anonymous, there's a broad variety of meetup groups out there. Plus, Meetup sends you occasional reminders and group suggestions based on your selected interests.

This rec is a bit disingenuous on my part -- I've actually never used Meetup myself, in part because I learned about it somewhat late in the game. That said, I've known people who swore by Meetup, who loved using it to find new places to explore and friends to get to know. Even if you don't find your new bestie through Meetup, you'll at least walk away with some new experiences and connections.

4. Intramural Sports

Sometimes this is known as a rec league, but picking up a sport through some kind of intramural organization (rec center, city-sponsored, or otherwise) can be a great way to meet new people and gain close friends pretty quickly. Even if you're not that athletic, there are beginner leagues and low-contact sports to play. I've seen flag football, frisbee golf, basketball, softball, and even run clubs. A lot of teams/groups tend to go out for a social event after games, effectively making lots of these teams "beer leagues" for participants.

In my first year with my last job, the company actually sponsored a bunch of us to play in a soccer league. While we were all woefully outclassed by the other teams, it was actually a lot of fun. I came to really trust and know my colleagues in a way I wouldn't have if I hadn't played on the team. We won maybe once, but I look back on that time with a certain sort of sweaty fondness.

Listen: team sports build camaraderie a lot faster than anything else. This is why companies make teams go on retreats to build interpersonal skills and do silly things like trust falls. Yes, that stuff is mundane and vaguely useless and mostly hokey, but the core idea is sound: working towards a singular goal in tandem is the fastest way to create community in discrete individuals. It's actually been studied extensively; as human beings, we respond extraordinarily well to being given a goal, some rules, and a group of people with varying skills whose resources we have to leverage to win. It's a guaranteed endorphin rush, and it inspires in us positive feelings associated with our comrades -- even when we lose.

So, consider joining a team of some sort. Even if it's pickup basketball at the rec center, or a full-on, bracket-tournament league with serious monetary buy-in, it's worth exploring or at least trying for a season. If you hate it, stop doing it. But you might find that you really enjoy field hockey, or maybe that Ultimate is the greatest thing in your life since the iPhone. Or maybe, even, that the people you're around make it worth staying.

(For the more artistically inclined, regional choirs and audition-only groups, community theater, cooking classes, and getting your bartending license all reflect the same principles as sports and fall into this same category. I suggest these more cautiously, though -- a sub-par director or a single diva in the group can totally bring down this experience. Regardless, exploring your local rec centers and community centers is an easy way to get to know your new home better -- especially if you're trapped in the suburbs.)

5. Newsletters and Mailing Lists

Ok, this one sounds super lame I know, but bear with me. I signed up for Guest of a Guest and a few other, more "underground" newsletters that list activities and goings-on in New York. It's pretty awesome -- I've seen some cool theater events and stuff, and I've attended some really fun exhibits and learned a lot. I even got to see Vera Wang give a talk! It's amazing how much is going on in New York at any given time, and it can be a little overwhelming if you don't know where to even begin looking.

I remember finding newsletters and mailing lists just like these even when I was living in Bloomington, IN. Admittedly, a university campus will have a lot going on in and around it, but my point stands: if a smaller town like Bloomington can make and sustain a mailing list, I'm certain other cities of varying size have similar things going on. Do a little Google-searching and find one, or scour public Facebook events in your area and check the comments for mentions of MLs.

Just bear in mind...

One of the toughest things I had to adjust to was the simple fact that people don't see each other as frequently in New York. Seeing someone once a month is fairly frequent here. Seeing someone twice a month means they're clearly your bestie! Get comfortable with the fact that seeing people daily is no longer a normal occurrence, unless you work with them or you're dating them. (And even that latter one isn't a guarantee.)

I think a lot of us have the expectation that our lives will resemble the television programs we loved when we were younger. Lord knows I wanted a life like the characters on Friends (and, later, Gossip Girl and How I Met Your Mother) and I was severely disappointed when my experiences didn't reflect that life.

A couple years later, I have a life that I'm thankful for. I learned to enjoy my own company more, and I carved out spaces for myself here. Do I wish more of my closest friends lived nearby? Yes, of course I do. But regular phone calls, long email threads, and working to build relationships with people located physically nearby have balanced that out.

Every relationship is hard work, especially close friendships. Do your best to recognize that the norms change when you enter "real adulthood," and that it will take you six months to a year before you have the same kind of support system you had when you graduated college. It's a process and a learning experience, but you'll come out of it with some great stories and (hopefully) people you can count on for life.

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