Maxim, not algorithm

On friendship as an optimization problem.

Annie Ma

November 3, 2023

A response to The Harper Review’s autumn 2023 proposition, “Friends should share your values.”

Dear editors,

About this time four years ago, I was in shrimp mode, hunched over my desk and working on the College Essay Guy’s Values Exercise. For those uninitiated, the Values Exercise provides a list of about thirty values, from adventure, to justice, to blank spaces for adding your own, if you value creativity! Designed to help you know thyself (the self-proclaimed mission of college applications), the exercise asks you to make a shortlist of your ten most important values, narrow it down to your top three, then finally to the single core value driving all your life decisions.

I’m flippant about it now, but as a senior in high school, I took the Values Exercise seriously. In that stretch of fall, I was trying to hold myself together through both friend and boyfriend breakups. The mantra “friends should share your values” felt like a cocoon I could hide in to explain those fractures; the Values Exercise was how I prepared for my metamorphosis. In college, I told myself, I’d be better at friend-finding. The people I hang out with will have to prove they’re “worth it”—whether “it” was the COVID risk, a free Friday night, my emotional investment—before I commit to being friends. If I figure out who else values “meaningful work” and “quality relationships,” I thought, I won’t suffocate in simultaneous relationship ruptures again.

But, especially when you’ve just gotten to campus and don’t know anyone, how can you tell if someone is “worth it,” if their values align with yours? Did the girl on my floor decline my invitation to a spontaneous Trader Joe’s run because she doesn’t value adventure or was she truly just tired? Did my old lab partner miss our planned lunch reunion because he really did have to finish a problem set, or is it because he doesn’t value quality relationships? 

For me, the issue with the statement “friends should share your values” isn’t that it’s false. In the long run, our value shortlists likely overlap with those of our closest friends; what we care about shapes our life trajectories. But when my freshman self turned this statistical reality into a friend-finding optimization problem, it meant every interaction became a test to see if someone met my ever-shifting criteria of being “worth it.” Not only did I treat small courtesies like they were Herculean feats, but any perceived lapse in caring on the part of those around me made me call entire friendships into question. A disagreement wasn’t to be aired out because it never would’ve happened if we had the same values. So I’d rationalize letting a relationship wither.

It’s temptingly simple to turn “friends should share your values” into a screening process. But it doesn’t work. People are noisy data, and the constant threat of judgment doesn’t give space for anyone, screener or screened, to grow, change, acknowledge a different perspective, or simply exist outside of perfection. As I enter my last year of college and face the vast world beyond, I know breakups of all kinds are on the horizon. This may sound horrible and bleak, but even if my friends and I discover down the line that we diverge in values, I will still cherish their presence in my life. It’s all we share that I value.


Annie Ma

Annie Ma is a fourth-year undergraduate at the University of Chicago studying computational and applied math.