The Most Important Thing on Earth, Ever

by Rob Stam

Human Connection

As a young aspiring entrepreneur back in the late 1990s I was craving the secrets to success. In my search, I found an entire genre of literature of which I had been previously unaware: leadership. The business world, at least from what I could tell, was obsessed with this topic: books, training series, and seminars were everywhere. One author went as far as to say “Everything rises and falls on leadership.”

Upon extended reflection after 20 years, I disagree. 

I would say that everything rises and falls on relationships. They are the most important thing on earth, ever. Everything really rises and falls on them. Not leadership, or innovation, or money management, or skill, or ideas, or education. Nothing trumps the ability to develop and maintain good relationships. Relationships will make or break every area of your life. 

When I unpack everything good in my life, it all comes back to a relationship. My entire career is built on relationships with partners and clients. If those relationships are healthy, my career is healthy. My family is a series of relationships. Even my faith, by definition, comes back to a relationship. 

Perhaps this “relationship revelation” of mine seems obvious, but I challenge you to think about how much time and energy you spend on recognizing the need for better relationships and then backing that up with effort. If you’re honest with yourself, your actual effort is probably not nearly enough. 

The power of relationships really came to light for me when I read the book, When Helping Hurts. Early in the book the authors explain that all poverty has its routes in a series of broken relationships. So in contrast to everything that is good in your life, take a moment to look at everything that is challenging about your life. My greatest moments of sadness, anxiety, and fear all stem from damaged or lost relationships. Sometimes that damaged relationships is with myself.

Early in my career I did pretty well as a salesperson. But whenever I’m asked about it, I find it very hard to define why I’ve ever had success in this area. I’ve spent very little time reading books on how to sell, I can’t remember anything I ever learned at a sales seminar, and If I’m being honest, I’m pretty terrible at “the close.” The lesson I learned a long time ago was that the best sales people never have to sell. Business comes to them because they have great relationships. People trust them. 

So, how do you create that? what makes a great relationship? I’ve picked five things to focus on:

  1. Authenticity. I’d like to believe that we all know that people don’t exist simply for us to get something from them. But evidence supports the fact that many of us are just users of other people — we go to networking events looking for what we can get, not who we can truly connect with. Authenticity demands that we don’t only value people as a means to our own success, but instead realize that the relationship itself if where the value lies. Sure, a relationship may lead to business and revenue, but that’s secondary. Place authentic value on other people for who they are, not just how they benefit you. 
  2. Restoration. All relationships have challenges. At some point something will go wrong, no matter who you are. It’s easy to stay angry, or give up on that relationship. But the ability to forgive, grow, and move on is critical. The strongest relationships you’ll ever have are not those that have remained “perfect,” but the ones that have been broken and restored.
  3. Quantity. It’s a well researched and documented fact that all species have an inherent ability to effectively manage a fixed number of relationships. For some species, like monkeys, it’s a few dozen. For some species of birds, on the other hand, it’s thousands. For humans, it’s about 150 (this theory is called Dunbar’s Number). I’m not saying you should go through your friend list and discard some relationships just to reach that magic number, but you do have to realize that you can’t be in close relationships with everyone. Some people will just be acquaintances. Some will be friends for a season, and then circumstances my naturally lead you apart. At some times in life, it is unnatural to maintain certain relationships at a deep level (based on location, life circumstances, etc.). This fact demands that you pay attention to the numbers as they will have a measurable impact on the quality of your relationships. 
  4. Communication. Any kind of relationship demands some level of interaction. Great relationships have the best communication. In our highly connected society, the demand for quality communication is higher than ever. Humans cannot have quality communication if we limit it to 140 characters. But it’s not just how well or often you can talk and listen to each other, it’s also how you talk about each other. When the other person is not around, how you speak about them is a measurement of how you value them as an individual, and your relationship. As the old saying goes: small minds talk about other people, average minds talk about events, great minds talk about principles. 
  5. The hierarchy of needs. If you’ve studied psychology you might be familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which is a widely accepted pyramid that breaks down human needs beginning with our most basic: food, water, shelter, etc., and peaks at our most significant, which Maslow called “self-actualization.” Another way to phrase this would be to say that the pinnacle of our human existence is to feel valued, or to have a feeling of self worth. My favorite way of defining this is to say that our greatest need is to be needed. Therefore, one of the most important things you can ever do in a relationship is help others feel essential. Show them how they make your life, and the world, better. This single action could literally save a marriage, a career, and even a life. Help others find who they really are and what they have to offer.

Think back on the best relationships in your life and those that have been lost. Measure them against those five variables and see if you discover patterns in your life, areas where you’ve grown, and areas where you still need to grow. If my premise is accurate that relationships are the most important thing ever, then this is worth the time it takes.