Feb 21, 2016

You’ll never walk alone? Try telling that to entrepreneurs

Who wants to be friends with an entrepreneur?

Apart from the company of professional advisers trying to sell their services, and politicians seeking party donations, the life of an entrepreneur can be a lonely one, especially for those who work by themselves.

Once upon a time, businessmen socialised at the golf or country club, or perhaps through some organisation like the masons or the local chamber of commerce. But those sorts of institutions seem out of fashion today; perhaps they are too masculine, too traditional. Health clubs are popular, but most fitness activities are solitary.

Anyway, the classic gathering places for corporate types aren’t necessarily where entrepreneurs feel comfortable. They don’t tend to make good team players.

Indeed, many entrepreneurs are not by nature clubbable. They are outsiders and contrarians who typically don’t feel the need to fraternise at work. Besides, forging such relationships in a company you own can be dangerous. How do you sack a pal? Consequently the wise boss always keeps a certain distance, and never lets his or her guard down too much with business colleagues during drinks after work. Unfortunately, a majority of adults make most of their friends — and indeed meet their spouses — through work.

Moreover, entrepreneurs are hardly the easiest of individuals with whom to get along. They typically work very long hours, so have limited time to cultivate friendships, and can be stressed when they are not working. And as a rule they are bossy and impatient, since they take charge for a living and are used to having their own way and getting things done. This sort of commanding and restless behaviour can be intolerable for others, especially in a social setting.

Plenty of individuals nurture friendships formed at school or college, and preserve them through their entire life. But managing such ties can be difficult, because people emigrate, or at least move cities, or one finds that as time goes by you have little in common. By contrast, some are talented at making new friends — a skill that becomes more important with age. After all, as Dr Johnson, a master of friendship, said: “If a man does not make new acquaintance as he advances through life, he will soon find himself left alone.”

My interpretation of this advice is that one should make friends with younger people. They teach you how the modern world works, and if you outlive all your contemporaries, those young acquaintances are very likely to still be around.

A pronounced change for parents in the past few decades has been the amount of time they are with their children. An Oxford study suggests that educated men are spending 10 times more time with their offspring than they did in the 1970s, when I was growing up. I suspect many of these leisure hours were previously devoted to male hobbies that involved fraternising with other men. Now, I notice, many couples build their friendships around other parents whose children attend the same schools. Bringing up children is, in effect, a 21st-century pastime that gives adults a pretext to socialise.

Some entrepreneurs are instinctively dynastic, meaning that those with families make their children the priority — so friendships wither.

Freelancers who work alone can stay in touch with their circle of acquaintances on social media. But these digital forms of communication are a poor substitute for face-to-face interaction, even if they are convenient. Humans are intensely social animals, and crave conversation and contact in person.

Of course, a high proportion of entrepreneurs are men, who tend to turn inwards when stressed. This can lead to isolation and loneliness. Sociologists have identified the “male deficit model”, which describes how men are worse than women at forming intimate bonds of friendship. Part of the problem is down to men being more competitive than women — and being expected to be more self-reliant. I fear alpha male entrepreneurs possess these tendencies to a greater degree than average. Yet lively social connections are important for healthy ageing — and indeed an agreeable existence. People who possess a diverse and rich social life are likely to live longer than those who are solitary. Interestingly, middle-aged men rely more on their marriage for friendship than women.

I do admit that I often partner with obsessive founders or managers when backing a business; I will generally choose the workaholic over the dilettante, since diligence is a vital ingredient for any successful venture. But those who have no hinterland, no outside interests, and no circle of chums of any kind — well, they are dull and have perhaps forgotten the underlying purpose of life.

I suspect there are certain tycoons who have realised too late that a great fortune is no substitute for good company and human warmth.