When it comes to self-help and self-improvement literature, there are a lot of pervasive ideas that often get repeated and reinforced. The problem though, is that these ideas aren’t always actually accurate and aren’t always useful. That’s why it’s sometimes worth looking at them and addressing whether or not they actually hold water (it has been found in numerous studies for instance that visualising your goals does not make them happen!).
One potentially destructive piece of advice then that may be worth examining, is the idea that we are the ‘average of the five people’ we spend the most time with and thus should be selective about who we spend time with – to the extent of even choosing to lose friends. The quote is attributed to Jim Rohn but it has been paraphrased and repeated constantly by the likes of Tim Ferriss, Peter Sage, Tony Robbins and many others.
But is there any actual data to support this idea? And does it actually make any sense?
So the logic behind the idea seems sound enough. The point is that social influence makes us all more similar to the people we spend time with. We can’t help but conform to some degree, or for the ideals of others to bleed into our own. This is how cliques form and it’s why offices have to make sure to mix their staff around. It’s also why spending time with people who are more successful than you will help you to become more successful. Mudos Ponens wrote:
“If you are a human, then the biggest influence on your personality is your peer group. Choose your peers. If you want to be better at math, surround yourself with mathematicians. If you want to be more productive, hang out with productive people…”
You get the point…
‘Experts’ also argue though that the reverse is true. If you spend too much time around people who are constantly whining about how cruel life is, and who have no aspirations, then it will end up draining your energy and your confidence.
And thus it follows: to become more successful you must leave behind the friends who are dragging you down, and you must surround yourself with geniuses.
Is it Time You Ditched Your Friends?
Some writers and ‘gurus’ take this advice more literally than others. Some such as Peter Sage actually actively suggest that you end relationships with friends that don’t fit into your model of who you want to be. He tries to make it sound a little less cold of course… but the fact is that he suggests you outgrow friends and you should get rid of them.
And perhaps this would help you to be better at whatever it is you want to do. And perhaps your new social network would help give you the contacts and advice you need to reach the top of your chosen field… but despite this there are tons of things wrong with the advice and there’s a lot more you need to consider.
I’m going to end the suspense and tell you right now: no, you shouldn’t be ‘ditching’ your friends except for in a few extreme circumstances. What follows is why…
The Problems With Choosing Your Five Friends
The first big issue with trying to choose the five people you spend most time with is that you can’t choose them. For the vast majority of us the five people we spend most time with are likely to be our partners, perhaps our children, maybe our brothers and sisters, parents, maybe our in-laws, probably our boss and colleagues and perhaps that old best friend from childhood. So who are you going to get rid of?
‘Sorry Mum, you’re just not ambitious enough anymore and it’s dragging me down!’
A little cold don’t you think?
Your five other closest friends aren’t really going to have that much of an impact on your life because you probably only see them every few weekends. What people like Tony Robbins tend to forget is that most of us have lives and jobs (oh yeah!).
And in fact you shouldn’t actually consciously pick your friends either, but rather trust your emotions and your gut to help you seek out the people who are similar to you and who you have a natural connection with. That’s not just my opinion, that’s science. According to this recent study (1) we actually share on average about 1% of our DNA with our closest friends. This is the same amount that we share with our fourth cousins. In other words, we are naturally able to find people who are more similar to us and who we share a connection: if you try to do that consciously though then it’s unlikely to work. Apparently this might actually have something to do with our sense of smell…
Then there’s the fact that having a diverse range of friends is actually very good for us. I have friends who have low aspirations and friends who have high aspirations – and they’re great for different things. When you just want to kick back and get drunk, the slightly less driven crowd can often be a little more fun! This way you avoid becoming too extreme in your views by making sure you get exposed to alternative ideas, and you become a little more open minded and less prejudiced.
Then there’s the fact that friends we’ve had for a long time tend to have a shared history – which can actually strengthen the friendship and lead to fun times reminiscing. Are you just going to ditch that for a friend who can help you get rich? Point being: not everything is about getting successful. If you can’t even relax with friends without worrying about your self-improvement drive, then you may have lost sight of what’s really important in the first place.
Doing the Right Thing
Then there’s the small matter of morals, which is to say that dropping your friends like hot potatoes isn’t really very nice for them. They’ve been loyal to you, and then because they’re clearly going through a hard time, you’ve just ditched them? Surely if you are more successful and optimistic than they are, then that could actually help them to get out of their own rut?
Because if you’re trying to hang out with five people who are doing better than you, then you become the one dragging the group down. What’s to stop them from just leaving you behind too?
The fact remains that there is something to be gained from spending time with those more successful from you, and that depressed friends can bring you down… so what do you do?
Well that’s where going to classes comes in, or where finding a few friends who have similar goals to you as well comes in. In other words you can still seek out those additional people who will help you to get to where you want to be, it doesn’t have to mean leaving friends behind! Likewise you need to harden yourself to the potential criticisms from friends or the low expectations and realise that they are simply different from you/going through a hard time. They’re there for friendship, not for career advice.
The only exception is for friends who are bitter or cruel, or who purposefully drag you down. Those people need a time out and they may not be ‘real friends’ so much as leeches. The point isn’t whether your friends are high fliers themselves, it’s that they accept you for who you are and that they believe in you. It’s that you have a fun time with them, feel better for spending time in their company and know they’re going to stick by you. And it’s that you can actually switch off from all this ‘self-improvement’ drive in order to just enjoy yourself.
And if you have friends like that then you owe it to yourself, and to them, not to let them go. Even if you think a different friend could help you to get further, quicker.
No matter what Peter Sage says…
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