First Impressions x The Great Discontent focuses on quick, candid conversations with emerging creative voices. Let’s discover and celebrate new ideas, voices, and sources of inspiration together.
Kat Vellos is a Senior Product Designer at Slack who’s passionate about user experience, experiential facilitation, and changing the world for the better. She’s also the author of We Should Get Together, a book that shares the secret to cultivating better friendships amongst the challenges of constant relocation, full schedules, the demands of partnership and family, and our culture’s declining capacity for compassion and intimacy in the age of social media.
This was a book that I think many people have really needed. Can you tell us about what led up to the moment that you decided to write the book?
I’d never had a hard time making friends before, but when I moved to the Bay Area in 2014, I suddenly did. This puzzled me, because I was meeting great people and “making friends” all the time, but establishing depth and regularity was surprisingly hard. So I got pretty obsessed with this conundrum and the topic of friendship in adulthood overall. Over the next couple of years, I was writing lots of observations, essays, summaries of conversations, and doing interviews with people about friendship and community. I’ve always cared a lot about community and have created multiple ones over the years, but this time it was different.
In 2016 I started hosting an experimental event called Better than Small Talk. At the very first gathering, I read an essay that I’d written about friendship. That essay later morphed into the first chapter of the book. So technically, I started writing the book before I even knew I was going to write a book.
At first I thought I’d maybe post the essays online or make a zine that was a collection of essays. When talking about this idea with a couple of friends, they said, “it sounds like you’re writing a book.” I’m really grateful for the validation, support, and possibility that their viewpoint offered me. When you share a perspective that’s full of possibility, it is an act of generosity. I’m thankful to my friends for seeing this possibility in me. They didn’t need to see proof that I’d written a book before to believe that I could write a great one. Their belief in me helped me have the courage to say, “yes, I’m writing a book” and take steps towards that reality. It took a couple more years of working on the book off and on, during nights and weekends, or whenever I could find some free time. I decided that I wanted to finish it by the end of 2019, so I did the bulk of my work that year: completing the manuscript, having it professionally edited, finishing all the illustrations, and doing all the layout and design.
I love how you approached this whole endeavor like a design research project. What did you find that most surprised you in your research?
So many things surprised me! I was surprised to learn about some very nuanced friendship challenges that I’ve never had to face. For example, some of the things that parents go through, like having to hang out with other people that you don’t really want to be friends with but you have to spend time together because your kids are best friends. I was also surprised to learn that economists have quantified an exact dollar amount that a person has to earn to make up for the loss of community they face when they move somewhere new for a job. I was also surprised to learn that friendship is correlated with a variety of positive health outcomes, from having a higher tolerance for pain to living longer with less disease.
In a recent social post, you mentioned that, “Writing is a solitary act but no author creates a book alone.” Did you find that the creative writing process was further isolating? And, if so, how did you combat that?
Many creative practices like writing and painting, as well as personal development practices like meditation, are done in solitude. I don’t find experiences of flow like these to be isolating. After a stretch of flow-state solitude — like what I experience when I’m working on a creative project — I’m in a much better state of mind to then be social. I’m also in a much more receptive mode when being social, which makes it more rejuvenating, inspiring, and pleasurable.
I’m also really intentional about how I balance my time. Each week that I spent several hours working on the book I also made sure to have meaningful touchpoints with friends too. I keep a color-coded calendar to track how I spend my time. For example, I marked my book-work in orange, my relational time in pink, nature time in green, self-care in purple, etc. I can see at a glance how my time is being spent and balanced, and what part of my life needs more attention if its color hasn’t appeared for a while. In 2019 there was an almost even balance of orange and pink, which feels like a success. By incorporating the book’s practices into my life over the last few years, the experiences of loneliness that inspired the book six years ago have been replaced with an ongoing stream of connection. I feel really happy with how things have worked out.
I spend a great deal of time with designers who talk about their own sense of isolation. Do you think that designers and creative professionals navigate adult friendships differently than others?
I’d love to unpack this more. In my research I didn’t focus specifically on how designers and creative professionals navigate friendship — my research included people across a wide spectrum of professions. Speaking from my own experience as an introverted creative person, I know that my creativity benefits a great deal from solitude and the open-ended introspection and experimental play that it makes possible. I purposely try to create or seek high-quality social interactions so I can remain balanced. I’d imagine there are other creative people who feel similarly. Society maintains longstanding stereotypes about artists and writers holing themselves up with their art. Even though creatives can also be very social and collaborative, these ideas about us isolating ourselves are in many ways based on people’s actual behavior.
From a more modern perspective though, I do wonder if some of the habits that result in great designs could get in the way of human connection. Design’s generative skills like creative thinking, experimentation, curiosity, and empathy are excellent for creating and navigating friendship. But design’s refinement skills, perhaps less so. For example, the design refinement process is often very exacting and critical in its assessments, looking for flaws and errors, focused on achieving perfection, and frequently levies comparisons against others. These traits can help create strong designs, but they’re not great for producing healthy bonds within human-to-human interaction. Friendship is often filled with ambiguity and imperfection, and it needs a judgment-free zone to safely explore vulnerability and intimacy. It takes intention and self-awareness to be aware of the habits of mind that apply while doing design refinement work — and to replace them with design’s generative skills when it’s time to make and deepen friendships.
Do you have advice on the first steps someone can take towards the friendships that so many of us are looking for?
The first step in having great friendships is to be a great friend. Get in touch with who you are as a friend — what your strengths and weaknesses are, what you’re looking for, what your priorities and values are, and where you need to grow and develop so that you can be a better friend to others.
From there, start reaching out in the places where you have the most and easiest access. That might be with existing friends from your past, frequently-seen work acquaintances or neighbors, or friends you adore but rarely see face to face. It’s refreshing to make entirely new friends, but what I learned in the process of writing this book is that most of the time people don’t want more friends — they want deeper, more fulfilling connections with the people they already know. So focus on making existing connections stronger. Once that works, you can ask those friends to introduce you to other wonderful people they know, then repeat. Those two steps alone should carry you to great results for a very long time. There are dozens of more ideas in We Should Get Together to keep things interesting along the way.
Learn more about Kat Vellos and We Should Get Together at weshouldgettogether.com.
This series is made possible by a spontaneous friendship between Holiday Matinee and The Great Discontent. Learn more about our pals at TheGreatDiscontent.com.