I Refuse to Be the Average of the Five People Surrounding Me

Priyanka Mashelkar

Don’t let pop psychology change the lens through which you view your friends and family.

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“You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with”. — Motivational speaker Jim Rohn
“According to research by social psychologist Dr. David McClelland of Harvard, your reference group determines as much as 95 percent of your success or failure in life”. — Darren Hardy, The Compound Effect

Well, what if I don’t want to look at the people I love as assets and liabilities? What if I don’t want to be a ruthless automaton who only looks at people from the viewpoint of what they offer me?

For that, we will first have to dig into why this statement even exists in the first place.

The Source of the Average Theory

Darren Handy, the author of The Compound Effect, refers to a study conducted by Dr. McClelland of Harvard University, which apparently came to the conclusion that up to 95% of your success (or failure) is determined by our reference group. Reference group was a term used for the people you associated most with.

What is not clear is whether the figure (up to 95%) was a correlation or a causation. There is a massive difference between the two. For example, I state that I see more cars on the days when I walk outside for half an hour, as compared to the days on which I work out at home. So, the number of cars is correlated to my walking outside. But certainly, my walking outside is not causing any increase (or decrease) in the number of cars on the road. This is a correlation, not a causation.

On the other hand, I state that I get more sun on the days that I walk outside. In this case, me walking outside is definitely causing me to increase my sun exposure. This is causation.

In the study cited by Handy, it isn’t clear whether the figure comes from a correlation or a causation. It could very well be the case that rich and privileged people naturally hang out with other rich and privileged people, who are in any case likelier to be more successful. On the other hand, it could also be a reverse causation, i.e. the success or failure itself might be causing your friend circles to shift. A person who has fallen below the poverty line due to misfortune, is likelier to spend time with other poor people, rather than keeping their formerly middle-class friends, isn’t it?

The second study that I could find behind this statement, was — The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 Years. According to this study, if a friend becomes obese, your chances of also being obese increase by 45%. If a friend’s friend becomes obese, your chances increase by 20%. If that person’s friend becomes obese, your chances increase by 10%. Effectively, your chances of obesity increase if anyone from your network of friends (upto three degrees of separation) becomes obese. Scary, right?

However, again, this study did not study causation. It could very well be the case that you are friends with people who live a similar lifestyle as you, and which increases the chances of both of you being or becoming obese. It does not conclude that obesity is infectious, and that if your friends are obese, you are doomed to be too.

That is the extent of the studies behind the oft-repeated axiom, demonizing our poor friends and family for failures that are usually attributable to either systemic factors, or our own selves.

No, because your friends and family are also struggling with money, they aren’t jinxing your side hustle. Because they are obese, they are not spreading the fat genes to you. Of course, needless to say (but not needless at all), I am NOT talking about abusive or toxic situations, where people ARE bringing you down or holding you back. I am talking about genuine well-wishers, who are not harming us in any way, but are still being blamed for our failures by pop psychology, simply because they might not be super-successful in their own lives.

You will naturally find your ‘squad’ or ‘tribe’

It is a fact that you will naturally gravitate towards people who are like-minded. You may differ from your closest friends and even your partners in many ways, but more often than not, there will be major areas of fundamental beliefs where your views will coincide.

That is exactly what this path-breaking 2016 study conducted at Wellesley found out. The study concluded that that people in relationships do not change each other over time. Instead, future friends or partners are already similar at the outset of their social connection.

This study conducted in American high schools agrees — adolescents at all achievement levels will change their friendship ties to maximize similarity between themselves and their friends.

Pretty much cuts the legs out from under all the pseudo-self-help articles urging you to cut the deadwood from your lives as a way to climb the ladder of success, right?

So, don’t worry if your friends or your partner aren’t doing great. There was something within them that you identified with, and which still exists. Don’t penalise them for what could just be a misfortune.

It is a logical fallacy

Even assuming this was all true, why would someone more successful than you choose to associate with you? Wouldn’t that just bring down their own average?

The point is, there is no end to this in which everyone is happy. If everyone is just trying to associate with people more successful, no one will associate with anyone. Not to mention that it is a superbly ingenuine manner of befriending someone.

Failure is a powerful teacher and motivator

I am here to propose an even more radical hypothesis. Instead of failed friends and family affecting us negatively, like the popular trope would have us believe, I present to you — the positive effects of having people less successful around us.

In a study conducted at Bristol University, the researchers scanned the brains of humans as they battled against an artificial opponent in a computer game, and discovered that, indeed, humans learnt from their own successes and failures.

But more importantly, they also discovered that though we didn’t learn much from our opponent’s successes, we learnt from their failures in a manner similar to our own failure. This was through “mirror neuron” activity, in which our brains are activated by the competitor’s moves, as if we’re performing the actions themselves.

So, don’t go around discarding anyone who has failed. They have faced failure from which you can learn, and maybe have a better chance at succeeding yourself. And the successful people who you’re so desperate to befriend? Their success might not magically rub off on you after all.

Don’t let pop psychology change the lens through which you view your friends and family. They are not walking-talking scorecards of successes and failures, of their net-worth and their weight. They are, and they are valid.

If you truly have five people, no matter how ‘successful’ in your life who are genuine well-wishers, consider yourself blessed, and find someone else to blame for failures that land at your feet.

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Personal finance that is simple, practical, and enjoyable. Productivity that isn't toxic. Advice that is research-backed, not pleasant.

Hollywood, FL
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