A holiday in deepest Norfolk has brought home some lessons about friendship. In a village you do not have the lazy luxury of making friends who are identikit portraits of yourself: same profession, age, income, newspaper - and prejudices.

Instead, you make the most of what there is.

So you settle for an enjoyable evening at the pub quiz or the local am-dram performance. In our village my friends include a gardener, a yacht skipper and a former nurse - none of them people I would be likely to encounter socially in London.

This was in my mind as I listened to a coaching client, an actuary by training. With a merger on the cards, it was clear his job was at risk. As he asked himself the question "should I leave my firm?", he told me: "I can feel myself quaking inside just at the thought!"


This client was unusual only in his honesty in naming his fear, which was twofold. First, that his skills were unique to his organisation and therefore not transferable. Second, he realised that the organisation had become not only his place of work but also the focus of his social network: the summer barbecues, the conferences and the evening entertaining were all with colleagues or clients.

He said he even enjoyed internal meetings, however pointless and badly run they turned out to be, because there he got recognition and a kind of simulated friendship.

Earning a pre-credit crunch luxuriously large salary, he was pampered by a concierge service and many other perks.

In other words, he was thoroughly institutionalised and was seriously unconfident of his ability to survive outside.

Real friendship

This client decided he had lost sight of what real friendship was. He said he had forgotten how to make new friends and had no clue about where to find them. The very idea that skilled effort was needed and that some of this might result in rebuffs and disappointments was intensely alarming to him.

The NHS is also a world of its own and can provide the same kind of ersatz companionship.

I am often surprised by how small and gossipy it can seem, with so many overlapping layers of contacts and professional connections. It is true that health managers have neither the massive salaries nor the pampering that was part of my client's world, but there is the same danger of forgetting that friendships made at work are like the status you get from your role: fragile flowers that mostly crumple swiftly after you leave.

Setting goals

My client left his job and a generous severance package is enabling him to think through his options, but in the meantime he has set himself the task of finding three new friends a year - the number gradually increasing to take account of age-related attrition.

He has invented an algorithm to do this: your age divided by five for each half-decade of your life, the result squared then divided by… but my eyes glazed over at this point.

As he reminded me triumphantly, actuaries are people who find accountancy too exciting.