If You Want to Change Your Life, Change Your Definition of "Normal"

Pete Ross

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A few years ago I was on a business trip to Michigan in the US, and as you can imagine of any jet lagged businessman, I had breakfast at a local place because I couldn’t be bothered wasting energy searching for anything else. There was nothing out of the ordinary about their breakfast except for one thing — it was huge. I ate half of it and I walked out of the place feeling like my stomach was exploding. I had a similar experience at lunchtime when I ate in the cafeteria with my work colleagues — they looked at my lunch (which would be considered substantial back home) and remarked “really? That’s it?”

Clearly to many Americans eating huge is normal. It’s no surprise then that so many Americans struggle with their weight and health. Even if they are eating decent quality food, the quantity of what they eat is ridiculously oversized. To them, unfortunately, it’s normal. Their stomach is so used to being stretched every mealtime that to give them what I would consider a normal meal would leave them feeling hungry. This in turn causes their waistline to get ever larger as they wonder why they can’t keep the weight off, lamenting that they don’t eat any differently than anyone else they know.

Your peer group is far more important than you think

I’m sure by now you’re familiar with some variation of the phrase “you are the sum of the 5 people you spend the most time around”. If you haven’t caught on by now, the reason this phrase is so important is because our definition of what is normal is heavily influenced by the people we spend the most time around. Think back to your childhood. The reason your parents didn’t want you hanging around with the bad crowd wasn’t because they thought you were easily corruptible, it’s because your view of what is normal becomes defined by that group. If they are always stealing cars and doing some crazy illegal stuff, you aren’t going to think much of shoplifting a chocolate bar. Likewise if your closest friends smoke weed all the time, it’s inevitable that, in a moment of mental weakness, you’ll have some. You’ll tell yourself something like “oh it’s just a puff, it’s not like I’m going to turn into my friends, they do it all the time”.

Whether you’re a child or an adult, your peer group defines how you think about the world. If you spend your time around a group of young entrepreneurs, you’re more likely to take risks, spend a lot of time doing work that you’re passionate on, having a positive disposition and generally doing whatever it takes. If you spend your time around no hopers, you’re more likely to become cynical, distrusting and resentful of authority and having a victim mentality. If you spend time around a lot of gym junkies, you’re more likely to eat healthier, place a disproportionate amount of importance on physical strength and wear clothes that accentuate your figure.

I’m sure by now you get the point: the people you spend the most time with is a huge deal when it comes to what you want in life. If you spend all your time around your stoner friends from high school but you want to be a stockbroker do you really think you’re going to get far in that endeavour? If you’re fat and want a washboard stomach, do you think you’re going to get there if you keep hanging around with people that go to McDonalds and eat huge meals all the time? If you want to appreciate life more but all of your friends are cynical, negative and have a victim mentality, how do you think you’re going to maintain a positive disposition?

Even if you consider yourself pretty strong willed mentally you’re going to struggle getting what you want if your peer group does the opposite. Maybe you hang around a group of over eaters. You’re conscious to keep your portion size smaller than what they eat, but you think nothing of eating some dessert with your meals. Even with your best intentions you fail, because the default is your peer group, so eating a bit better than them is still not good enough. Contrast this with your peer group being a bunch of crossfitters or bodybuilders. Even if you have the worst diet out of that group, their standards are so high that you still look better than 95% of the population.

We can extend this to money as well. Your peer group may think you’re not very good with your money — but if that peer group is full of accountants, investors and people in finance, you’re most likely still doing much better than the average middle class person who is trying to do the right things with their money. Their peer group doesn’t have the same standards or expertise when it comes to money, so even though they are the best and most knowledgeable in their peer group, they fall well short of the least knowledgeable person in a peer group of finance savvy people.

If you want to be elite at anything, this really comes into focus. Walk into any powerlifting or strongman gym, and your eyes will bulge out of your head at how much weight they’re moving around. To them, it’s normal. If you want to get really strong then, the last place you want to try and do it is in a commercial gym where all the people are just trying to get their heart rate up. At a commercial gym, a 100kg deadlift is big weight. At a powerlifting gym, it’s a warm up. The differences in what are considered normal are huge. When I was doing judo, I tried to get invited to the sparring sessions as soon as possible, rather than staying with all the beginners. When your normal becomes sparring with world class athletes, your skill increases exponentially.

The take away is this — you don’t have to ditch your friends, family or your acquaintances, but you do need to think seriously about what you’re after in life and what your peer group wants out of life. When they are closely aligned you’re onto a winning formula and your progress will be fast. If the people you spend the most time with have different standards and want different things, you’ll find yourself constantly frustrated and wondering why you can’t gain traction. Try to minimise as much as possible the influence of people who want different things in life as you and maximise your time with the people who want similar things — your success depends on it.

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I write about career, performance, psychology, self development and business humour. I'm an author, former national competitor in judo and strongman and a former military instructor.

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