Are you a different person around your grandma than you are around your best friend?
So which one is the real you? Impossible to say. The fact is, there is no “real you” independent of your environment. Your behavior and identity depend on who you’re with, both moment-to-moment and generally speaking.
Jim Rohn is my favorite personal development thinker, bar none. His ideas are simple, timeless, and completely free of woo-woo nonsense. Of Jim’s many pithy sayings, his most well-known is likely this one:
You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.
I always feel a little defensive when I read this quote, which means it’s worth unpacking.
We’re affected by others (whether we want to be or not)
We are far more affected by others than we care to admit. We like to think of ourselves as being stable and fully-formed entities—independent actors interacting cleanly and rationally with other independent actors, only affected by those interactions to the extent we choose to be.
Our membranes are permeable. We are wired for social interaction, and it always affects us. And the people we spend the most time with affect us the most.
In what ways?
Values, habits, and dreams
Our values, habits, and dreams are not hardwired. They are malleable.
Think back to a different chapter of your life, to another time when you were surrounded by different people.
- What were your values—what ideas were important to you?
- What were your habits—what did you do on a regular basis?
- What were your dreams—what did you hope to accomplish?
Now the big question: Whom did you spend the most time around?
I’d bet the farm that your priorities in the above areas largely lined up with those of the people you were closest to. And if you look at your life today, the same is probably true. I know it’s true for me.
This isn’t just an interesting observation—we can use this information to shape our lives.
Choosing carefully whom we spend time with
Because we’re so deeply influenced by others, choosing whom we spend time with gives us huge leverage over our behavior.
- Spend time with ambitious people and you will become more ambitious.
- Spend time with bitter, jaded people and you will become bitter and jaded.
- Spend time with liberals and you will become more liberal.
- Spend time with readers and you will read more.
- Spend time with Crossfit enthusiasts and you will probably get into Crossfit.
I’m not suggesting cutting anybody out of your life unless they are truly toxic (although if they are, you should). But since the people closest to us wield enormous influence over our lives, here’s my simple suggestion:
When you know what you want for a certain area of your life, actively seek out companions who reinforce that ideal and avoid those who undermine it.
Other people influence us more than we might think, and we can’t change that (not that we’d want to—it’s part of what makes us human).
But we can work with it.