There is a saying, most often attributed to Jim Rohn, that is very popular in the coaching and personal growth world: “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”
There is some real truth captured in this quote. The people we spend time with have a significant impact on us, both consciously and unconsciously. There is new data to suggest that the friends of the friends of the people we spend the most time with have a significant impact on us—even if we don’t know them! I have a couple of issues, not so much with the idea itself, but with the way it’s thrown around and the unquestioned implications that generally come with it.
First, his quote is usually only used to look at surface level ‘success.’ Do you want to be rich? Hang out with rich people. Do you want to grow your coaching business? Hang out with people who have (seemingly) succeeded at this. The deeper question, I believe, is not ‘do I want what they have?’ But ‘do they embody the ways of being I most deeply value?’
If I value authenticity, are the people I surround myself with committed, not only to their authentic expression but also to encouraging mine? If I value curiosity, are the people I spend time with willing to inquire beyond what they already believe and think they know?
None of this is either to knock conventional success or to say that spending time with people who are bold in the areas of business and money isn’t valuable. My own business has soared over the past several years, primarily because I went out of my way to be part of groups that challenged my beliefs and habits around money and scarcity.
I am saying that if your values don’t align, those ‘outer’ trappings generally won’t stick. Or even worse, you may wake up one day and have no idea who the person is looking back at you from the mirror. As Kurt Vonnegut says “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
Take a more in-depth look at the people who seem to have what you want and check: Do they? Are they genuinely living in a way that you would feel good living? Have they achieved ‘success’ in a much broader way than just financial or how many followers they have? You may believe you can pick and choose what you learn and/or take on from them, but often that’s not as easy as it seems.
My other issue with the way this saying is used is that it’s only ever used to encourage people to look outward at the people around them. The implicit suggestion is that, if we want a better or more successful life, we need to choose better or more successful people to associate with. I believe it is more important and impactful to look inward and ask the question: What impact do I want to have on the people around me, by virtue of who I BE?
If we shift our perspective from ‘what am I going to get from the five people I spend most of my time with?’ to ‘how am I going to contribute to the people for whom I am one of their five?’ then we take responsibility for the world we live in and create, rather than waiting for others to create something that we benefit from.
This is the act of a leader and a culture creator, not a consumer and a taker.
It is important to note that these things are not mutually exclusive.
We can raise the culture around us by embodying the world we want to live in (in effect, going first) and keep seeking out other people who will take us further. There will always be people who are farther along (some) path than we are & it’s an important act of humility to recognize this & be willing to learn from them. However, we can simultaneously live our deepest values so fully that the people who spend time around us are lifted up, rather than always looking at what they can do for us.