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Why You May Not Have Many Friends

How Being Goal-Oriented at Work Can Affect Personal Life

Hand placing a dart on the bullseye
Image from Canva

The average person will spend about one-third of their life at work. Workplace culture is more than just a place to put a company’s vision and values into practice. It’s one of the main influences shaping our behavior and attitudes as persons. So, even if you refuse to identify with your job, chances are that your job may be influencing your personal development in not-so-obvious ways.

When a workplace culture is poorly developed or toxic, it can not only make one’s life miserable, it can have knock-on effects that can change one’s character and the way one interacts with others.

One of the main culprits is the way businesses tend to be overly goal-oriented. Work culture can co-opt our habits and character in favor of an all-consuming drive to realize targets. Things like profit-loss margins and Key Performance Indicators can not only get us to shift how we think with respect to a job, but how we act and interact over time. In fact, being SMART about goals (i.e. ensuring they are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timed) might be productive for business but counter-productive for personal development.

A quick check on your emotional intelligence and how you feel about your work can give a good indication of what’s right and wrong with your job.

For example, if my potential for career progression is measured by how many memberships I can sell on the floor, the tactics I use can very much become a part of who I am and how I act. Am I pushy? Hawkish? Single-minded to the point where I am not much of a team player?

Consider also that if I act in a certain way at work, this creates a first impression and an anchoring bias in how others perceive me. And how others perceive me will, in turn, influence my own behavior. Work habits and traits can become a self-fulfilling, fated path for character development.

In this blog, we’re going to explore how your work might be affecting your ability to meet and maintain meaningful friendships. We’re going to take a few lessons from existentialism to help you assess if you need to make some changes.

What Existentialism Can Teach Us about Business

One of the keys to success in business is the clear identification of goals and targets. If you or the business doesn’t know what it wants to achieve, it’s very difficult to come up with an effective and efficient strategy.

However, the clear identification of goals alone is not healthy for an organization. This is because when goals dominate the work culture, they make employees single-minded and unable to take in contextual cues and meanings that may matter in the development of the bigger picture.

Enter the French existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), whose reflections on the nature of goals in terms of projects can help us to better understand how one’s work might be making one bad friendship material.

Two puzzle pieces with the words "un" and "friend" being held by two hands
Image from Canva

While much of existentialism discusses the importance of projects in finding meaning in life, Sartre’s philosophy is the most pronounced in how it unequivocally identifies meaningfulness with the actualization of projects. If we are not able to identify what projects help us make the most of our lives, then we are living inauthentically.

Sartre coins two terms to designate this difference:

  • The For-itself is one who lives authentically in pursuing one’s projects.

  • The In-itself is the one who becomes sedimented in old ways and fails to pursue projects.

Living authentically is so central to Sartre that he goes as far as to say that in order to find what projects are most authentic, we have to break from the past – both collective and individual histories. He does not mean to completely erase them, but instead to bracket them in order to figure out what really matters. He refers to this as negating and nihiliating.

Sound great for the determined business go-getter?

Not so fast.

A significant part of this process of negation is that it inevitably brackets the relationship to other people. In other words, determining what projects matter means bracketing how other people might matter. You’ve got to think about your own self first. Furthermore, actualizing these projects will mean not only bracketing these relations but acting despite or even against these relations. To do otherwise is most likely a form of inauthentic living because you’d be living according to what others have determined to be meaningful.

This boils down to a phrase you might have heard before. Sartre is famous for his assertion that “Existence precedes essence.” In other words, there is no essence predetermining who we are; it’s up to each one of us to determine who we are according to our projects.

For example, I might think that climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is a life project that will bring an immense sense of accomplishment to my life. If I were to follow Sartre’s philosophy, one outcome might be that I try to enlist as many people to help me train and prepare for the expedition. Note that it may be necessary to include others to achieve my goal. BUT, it isn’t necessary that I need to treat them nicely. I see them as the mere means to my own ends.

To put this in Sartre’s terms (I paraphrase):

In acting authentically like a For-itself, it’s usually the case that I end up treating other people as In-itselfs for the cause of my own projects. To do otherwise risks the integrity of my own project since it may put me in a position where I may become a means (or In-Itself) for another person’s project.

At best, competing people trying to live authentically can co-exist when there is mutual benefit between their respective projects. At worst . . . put it this way: I used to give my first-year philosophy students an experiment to try.

Since existentialism is supposed to be practicable and make a difference in one’s life, try living like a For-itself over the weekend. Try to bracket any relations or any feelings you have for other people in realizing some weekend project. Then see how many friends you make or lose. Chances are, in trying to live according to Sartre’s philosophy, you’ll mostly be seen as an asshole.

The strength of Sartre’s philosophy lies in the push to really think about one’s values in life anew. However, in the desire to realize your goals, you may be unawaringly alienating others simply because you see them by default as means to your own ends, or as minor characters in your own story where you are the protagonist.

And this goes for individuals as well as businesses and organizations.

The Cost of Doing Business on Friends

Overlaying the problems with Sartre’s philosophy onto a work culture can help reveal where and when employees might work too single-mindedly according to goals.

Life is not just about your goals. It sounds like common sense. But it’s often the case that one ignores what others might want or simply assumes what one wants is what others want. We might then add a new, cautionary term to supplement Sartre's terminology in order to express the desire to live authentically yet without being an ass to others.

For-itself. In-itself. And, by the way, don’t be a connard.

connard m (plural connards, feminine connasse) (vulgar, offensive) bastard, jerk, asshole ▲Synonyms: bâtard, enculé, enfoiré

To be fair, I am being a bit one-sided in my representation of Sartre. There is much we can learn from his account of negative consciousness and how it can bring to our attention matters that require serious reflection. In addition, not all existential thinking is synonymous with Sartre and the idea of projects.

Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973), a critic of Sartre, introduced the idea of being open and available to others as the key to authentic being. Emmanuel Levinas and Paul Ricoeur expanded on Martin Heidegger’s notion of "being-with others" as the core of ethical relations.


Would it be too novel of an idea that businesses and their respective workplace cultures could teach us better how to be with others?

Teambuilding is a start, but think of personal development that extends beyond teams within work. Work would make you a better person, not just a better employee.

If you want to keep on top of ideation and practical steps for creating a smart and innovative business culture, subscribe to P2U's free Meaningful Work Newsletter (below)! Or, check out the archive!


About the Author

Todd Mei (PhD) is former Associate Professor of Philosophy and is currently a researcher and consultant in meaningful work. He is founder of Philosophy2u. With over 20 years of experience in teaching, researching, and publishing in the philosophy of work and economics, existentialism, hermeneutics, and ethics, Todd enjoys bringing insight, innovation, and worklife revolution to organizations, businesses, and individuals.

This blog and its content are protected under the Creative Commons license and may be used, adapted, or copied without permission of its creator so long as appropriate credit to the creator is given and an indication of any changes made is stated. The blog and its content cannot be used for commercial purposes.


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