How a 6-year-old Boy Inspired Dunbar

One of my favorite comics is Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes, a recounting of the mundane, hilarious, and oddly epic adventures of Calvin, a 6-year-old kid and his stuffed, pet tiger, Hobbes. The pair battle blobs of oatmeal, pig-snouted teachers demanding attention, and our infinitesimal place in the universe.

In one frame, Hobbes stretches and pounces on an unsuspecting Calvin. A few frames later, Calvin pummels Hobbes with snowballs. Later in the story, they are giggling in the backseat of a Suburban. At bedtime, they pull the covers back and forth wondering how best to defend themselves against monsters lying in wait.

The adventures of Calvin and Hobbes kept me up into the wee hours of the night as a kid, but the story of their friendship is what makes the comic a joy to read –– even as an adult today. No wonder Bill Waterson said, “Truly great friends are hard to find, difficult to leave and impossible to forget.”

It makes you wonder if the comic strip of your life has similar company.

Many of us interact with thousands of people on a daily basis due in large part to technology which gives us the ability to connect with almost anyone, anytime, anywhere. Yet finding and keeping friends is seemingly harder than ever before.

Most friends after graduating college, separate, and move to different zip codes, cities, and even, countries. These friendships are like elastic bands; stretched, but pull too hard, too often — a missed phone call, a forgotten birthday, a misinterpreted text — it tears, and eventually, snaps. We may be more connected, but our connections are increasingly fragmented; we may have the entire world at our fingertips, but that is where most of our friendships stay –– arm's length; we may be able to connect in real life more often, but we find ourselves lonely, even in smartphone-lit room.

A national survey recently showed that the average number of confidants people will have in their lifetime has shrunk. According to the survey, 1 in 4 of us currently don’t have any close friends at all. The reality that more people today are living life alone is dramatized by the fact that friendship is the single most important predictor of living a long and happy life. “Loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism,” says Robert Waldinger in his 2015 TED talk. Waldinger is the director of the Harvard Medical School Study of Adult Development, a 75-year-old longitudinal study. The findings from the study are conclusive. Close relationships are the strongest predictors of health and well-being in life –– more so than social class, IQ, or even genes.

While it is logical to try to use social media platforms or, for the techie people out there, customer relationship management software to deepen our friendships, the current array of options leaves more to be desired. For all the ways that technology helps us connect with other people, it also often encourages us to be network-obsessed, self-promotional, superficial, and transactional.

There is too much noise in our Facebook timelines, limited opportunities for personal, long-form communication on Twitter, a sense of ephemerality in our friendships on Snapchat, a posture of vapid professionalism on Linkedin, and something just off about using software created for a corporate sales department to manage our personal relationships.

here must be a better way. Over the course of our lives, we know that we will meet exceptional people with whom we want to stay in touch.We need a tool to help us identify and invest in our most important relationships. Since this tool doesn’t currently exist, a couple of friends and I decided to do something about it. We built Dunbar.

We, at Dunbar, aim to do only a few things exceptionally well:

  1. Dunbar helps you identify your core friends because quality beats quantity every time. We think that Oxford evolutionary psychologist, Robin Dunbar was on to something when he discovered that humans can really only cultivate 150 meaningful relationships. Many know call this phenomenon as Dunbar’s number. Instead of correlating the strength, depth, and longevity of our friendships by the number of “likes”, “swipes”, and “snaps” we accumulate across various platforms, Dunbar helps you identify the people that really belong in your inner circle, allowing you to focus your attention on cultivating your friendships.

  2. Dunbar helps you interact with the right person at the right time because technology should eliminate distraction. Our lives run on a deficit of time and attention. Unfortunately, technology often helps us invest in superficial relationships — those top of mind or top of newsfeed — at the expense of more profound ones. At Dunbar, we think that technology should nudge us in the right direction, helping us prioritize the right thing at the right time, so we can focus on things that matter. When it comes to our relationships, that means creating memories with our closest contacts. To achieve this end, Dunbar communicates with you only through text messages (that way you never get distracted by useless notifications, advertisements, clickbait, fake news, trolls, or whatever else is lurking on other interwebs). With Dunbar, you get the right information at the right time about the right person. Nothing more, nothing less.

  3. Dunbar helps you interpret your scribbles in order to plan the next thing –– whether it be a phone call or a night out –– because knowledge is only powerful if actionable. It’s hard to remember the small, yet important details of friendship: reading that recommended article, reserving a spot at that favorite restaurant, following-up on that intro request. We often forget to review the details we record and when we do review, the information is no longer relevant and therefore inactionable. To resolve this issue, Dunbar strives to be that personal assistant you’ve always wanted, scribbling down those important notes you want to remember every time you connect with a friend. Right now, Dunbar is like a new hire at a company, and will take some time to get up to speed. But we’re fully confidant that in the near future, Dunbar will not only capture notes and remind you to follow-up, but also fully schedule that next phone call or meet-up with your friend, allowing you to catch-up exactly where you left off.

Taken together, these three things – identification, interaction, and coordination – are the building blocks for long-lasting friendships.

I recently told Dunbar that I wanted to stay in touch with my good friend, Alex, on a bi-monthly basis. Dunbar knows from my preferred calendar that I met with Alex last Tuesday at my favorite coffee shop in New York. After the meeting, Dunbar texted me to see if there was anything I wanted to be reminded of or follow-up on. Since Alex is up for promotion this quarter, I wanted to remember to check-in the next time we connect. Dunbar records this information and helps me schedule dinner the next time I’m in the area. Fast forward three months later and I’m sitting across from Alex. Dunbar reminds me to check-in on the promotion. So I ask (fingers crossed), “What about that promotion we talked about a while back?” Alex responds, “Thanks for remembering –– I got it.” “Congratulations,” I say. “The next round is on me!”

At Dunbar, we want to make stories like this an everyday reality, empowering people to connect with those they care about, to find rest in the chaos of daily life, to reclaim the time we thought we never had, and to redirect our attention towards those who really matter. We invite you to be part of this journey with us. Subscribe here to reserve your spot:

This is just the beginning and we fully expect a few twists and turns. We cannot promise where the trail will end, but we can promise that we’ll become better friends in the process.

Thanks to Karl Li and Steven Zhang for being fellow conspirators on this adventure.