I try to read equal amounts of fiction and non-fiction. Usually, I end up tipping the scales more in the non-fiction direction because I love learning from real world experiences. But fiction can provide equally important lessons. In the New York Times best selling novel Euphoria by Lily King, one such moment made me reflect on how I impact the people around me, and how the people in my life impact me in return.
First, some context on the quote. Goodreads.com describes Euphoria as this: “In 1933 three young, gifted anthropologists are thrown together in the jungle of New Guinea. They are Nell Stone, fascinating, magnetic and famous for her controversial work studying South Pacific tribes, her intelligent and aggressive husband Fen, and Andrew Bankson, who stumbles into the lives of this strange couple and becomes totally enthralled. Within months the trio are producing their best ever work, but soon a firestorm of fierce love and jealousy begins to burn out of control, threatening their bonds, their careers, and, ultimately, their lives… ” The thought provoking section I am going to share involves Nell confiding to Andrew Bankson about how her husband, Fen, doesn’t always support her rigorous work ethic.
The quote is:
” ‘Personality depends on context, just like culture,’ she said. ‘Certain people bring out certain traits in each other. Don’t you think? If I had a husband, for example, who said, “Your typing makes my brain work better,” I would not be so ashamed of my impulse to work. You don’t always see how much other people are shaping you. “
When I read this, I stopped. What do I say and do that makes those around me speak, act, or think in a certain way? How do the actions of those around me influence my internal monologue, choices, and habits? This wasn’t a brand new idea I was experiencing for the first time. I am familiar with, and think often about, the quote “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with” attributed to author, entrepreneur, and inspirational speak Jim Rohn. My high school art teacher and incredible athlete Sean McCabe used to always say “if you want to be a fast runner, you have to run with fast runners.” You may have heard “if you hang out with four millionaires, you will be the fifth.” But in the context of Euphoria and the moment I was reading it, an old idea began to take new meaning in my life. I am becoming more aware of my intentions for life I want to live and constantly considering whether or not my environment reflects and supports those intentions.
The environment in which you live, work and play has a major impact on both your internal thoughts and the external manifestations of those thoughts. A major factor of environment is the people you interact with; friends, family, neighbors, teammates customers, and co-workers all influence our own outlook on life. Writer and PHd in philosophy Maarten van Doorn writes “The people we surround ourselves with are the biggest influence on our behavior, attitudes and results. Who you are around — what they’ve got you thinking, saying, doing and becoming — sets the course of your life.” Doorn says this is because “They determine what conversations dominate your attention. They affect to which attitudes and behaviors you are regularly exposed. Eventually you start to think like they think and behave like they behave.”
Humans are inherently tribal. Our ancient ancestors hunted, gathered, fought with (against others and themselves), ate, celebrated, mourned, laughed, cried, and slept in groups small enough for everyone to know everyone else; we lived with, relied on, and died with closely related others. That intense interpersonal connection has lessened over time through increased specialization, smaller family units, and population expansion. But our DNA is wired to crave connection. The desire to connect evolved within us because connection to other humans used to be the difference between survival and death. Each of us still has that desire for connection, which is why we pursue, build, and maintain relationships.
In the modern world we are no longer confined to small groups isolated by geography. While the amount of people each of us encounters on average has increased (you might see more people on a trip to the mall than some ancient humans saw in their entire lives), I believe the amount of people we intimately interact with has decreased. Our relationships are more numerous, but significantly more shallow. We also have much more freedom, on average, to choose when and with whom we spend our time; if we don’t like someone or a group of people, leaving and forging a new path doesn’t hold the same implications of isolation and death that it once did. Because of this, I believe we now have much more power to manufacture the lives we want to live by constructing our environments to help us attain our goals. Relationships are an important factor of that environment.
So how do we even begin to consider if the people in our environment are helping or hindering the pursuit of our ideal life? First, you have to have a pretty good idea of what kind of life you want. You can’t even begin to imagine a supportive environment without knowing if the path you are on is the right one. Author of the Personal Excellence blog, Celes, writes “In my general day-to-day life, I encounter sleepwalkers who lack a core focus in their lives. Their lives revolve around working, eating, sleeping, random entertainment, and generally getting by. When I am with them, I find it very difficult to lift the discussion from lower level, fear-based and ego-based topics like gossip, complaining, unhappiness, and day-to-day weary, to higher-level, love-based topics such as living with purpose and self-improvement.” Can you think of anyone like this in your life? Is it you? You don’t want to wake up in ten years and wonder how you got there. We need to practice mindful observation, careful reflection, and considerate creation of intentions. Figure out where you want to be, where you are now, and what options you have to get from here to there.
The next step is to contemplate the five people (more or less) you spend the most time with. This can include friends, family, co-workers, teammates, and customers. How do their thoughts, actions, and goals line up with your own? Don’t write off people without careful thought, but also seriously consider how they are shaping you.
If you can determine who aligns with your vision and who doesn’t, how can you increase contact with the positive people and decrease contact with the negative? For those positive influences, the Personal Excellence blogger Celes writes “This can be face-to-face contact, telephone, or email/internet. How can you increase the opportunities of interacting with this person? If you know the person, how can you communicate with him/her more often? If you don’t know the person, does this person belong to a certain community that you can be part of? Do you have any friends who might know this individual? Is there a way for you to join the same social circles?”
Last, make choices that align with your vision. In episode #157 of The Tim Ferriss Show podcast, Ferriss interviews Mike Rowe of the Discovery Channel show Dirty Jobs fame. Near the end, Ferriss asks Rowe “Is there any last words, things you’d like my audience to think on, do, consider before we sign off?” Part of Rowe’s response is “… advice is that thing you ask for when you secretly know the answer and wish you didn’t.” If you know what to do, do it. Deep down you know who fits into the categories you are considering and who doesn’t. Act accordingly.
One important caveat of examining your inner circle is this: keep critics close. To be successful, you need criticism. Not negativity, not someone that puts you down, but someone who will tell you the truths that you need to hear. Connie Stemmle writes “It’s easy to assume that the best strategy would be to make sure the five people you spend the most time with are your five biggest cheerleaders. However, that’s not necessarily the case. Of course you want to have people around you who are supportive, but if you only receive positive feedback, how are you going to grow? If you want to be an expert, you want to have that person in your life who is willing to critique your work.” You need negative or critical feedback in order to identify areas of improvement, but this is quite different from people that put you down.
While much of this article describes examining how others influence you, also consider how you influence others. Connie Stemmle says to be one of the five positive influences in someone else’s life. Stemmle writes “As you grow throughout your life and career and come into contact with people whose shoes you were once in, aim to be one of the five people that they want to spend their time with. One of the best ways to learn is to teach, and putting yourself in a position to do so can be beneficial to you and to your mentee. Aiming to become a respected person in any domain of your life will help you change how you view yourself. In order to be respected by others, you have to first respect yourself. Doing so will allow you to have the confidence that you need in order to succeed and grow through various personal and professional stages of life.”
How does this translate to the professional world? Are any of you leaders or managers? Consider the environmental factors of the people on your team and how they influence each other. What kind of values does your team, company, or organization have? Maybe it is creativity. Maybe it is honesty. Maybe it is continuous improvement. Make sure your own words, behaviors, and actions reflect those values. Lead from the front. Consider the impact of your employees on each other. Be willing to make the hard choices when people are influencing your team in the wrong direction. Hire and promote people based on how they contribute to the environment you are trying to build. Determine the direction of your team and then drive effort on the chosen path.
I am a big fan of taking ideas and concepts from one area and using them to be successful in different, unrelated areas. A common theme I have repeatedly come across in yoga, meditation, general fitness, nutrition, business, relationships, and literature is mindfulness and thoughtful consideration; to slow down, think about where we are and where we want to be, make decisions based on our goals, and use those choices to determine our actions. When considering the people around us, it is important to take many different and sometimes separate factors into consideration. At the end of the day, it is important to make intentional, purposeful, and well thought out decisions. Times change, goals change, and people change. Factors outside of our control can have a large impact on what happens in the future. But you control what happens right now. Wake up ten years from now being exactly where you are meant to be at that time, not wondering where you are and how you got there.
Keep the conversation going! Please comment, like, share, or reach out to me with any thoughts, critiques, or considerations.