The first is a millionaire. The second has founded a revolutionary company. The third is a successful writer. The fourth is a freelance programmer. The fifth is a professor.
You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. So if I spend all my time with the above people, I should turn out pretty good.
What about this group?
The first is a drug addict. The second beats up his wife. The third is on benefits. The fourth is about to go to prison for dealing. The fifth is a drug and drink addled DJ.
You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. So if I spend all my time with the above people, I’m in trouble.
This cliché (in my mind, a cliché is something that is so commonly quoted that it becomes easily and uncritically accepted as truth) is dangerous.
Of course, there are examples where it is true. If you want to be a world class fighter, a key metric is the quality of your training partners. If you train with those who are mediocre, it’s gonna be hard to be the best in the world.
But the “you are who you surround yourself with” dogma doesn’t always work.
In the mid-nineteenth century, many black people in America were raised amongst a culture of intimidation, degradation, abuse and hate. And despite all the pain and suffering, they survived.
Solomon Northrup was incarcerated, beaten and abused for twelve years. He didn’t become who he spent the most time with. There are people who meet their environment of hate with love and determination.
The implication of “you are who you surround yourself with” is dangerous for another reason.
What if you’re at college and all your best friends are interested in is smoking, drinking, and fucking? Does that mean that’s all you’re interested in? Does their choice to squander their life mean the same for you?
Everyone keeps saying “you are the the average of the five people you surround yourself with”. But even though you’re surrounded by wasters and idiots, you know you’re not really like them.
The dogma isn’t true.
Have you ever heard of the teleological fallacy? It’s where us humans fall into the trap of thinking we know exactly where we’re going.
A young woman decides she wants to be an entrepreneur. So she joins Facebook groups, Slack conversations, goes to Meet Ups, talks to other entrepreneurs.
A young man chooses a career as an artist. So he starts drawing, he attends conferences, goes to events, build relationships, mentors under successful artists.
But what if their decisions were wrong? What if, in the end, they didn’t want to be artists or entrepreneurs? What if they change their minds and decide to be something else?
For “you are who you surround yourself with” to work, it helps to know exactly what you want to be. But it’s unusual for us to have such clarity of purpose.
Another issue I have with the belief is that is neglects our ability to choose. If it’s so true and so powerful, then it also can’t be true that, as Viktor Frankl says, “in between stimulus and response is choice”.
If who we are is determined solely by the environment we inhabit, we cannot decide who we are.
No. It’s not that simple.
Your physical surroundings do not have that strong a sway over your mental ones. You can be surrounded by cruel and base people and be okay. You can be surrounded by the cowardly and the weak and come out fine.
Stoics talk about the Inner Citadel. The part of you that is untouchable by pain, suffering and external influence. The part that no one can change or alter unless you allow them to.
YAWYSYW denies this part. It rates as important who everyone else is, not who you are.
I’m not dismissing it’s truth, I’m just questioning it’s extent. It’s more limited than we think.
With that in mind, here’s a few ways to survive around people that you don’t wish to become, and thrive around people you do wish to mirror.
1. Gain clarity. If you have this, it becomes easier to judge how much you’re willing to let your environment affect you.
2. Skepticism and inner reservation. You are not who you hang around. Your identity is separate from the group’s identity. Don’t let “I” become “we”.
3. Physical vs mental. If you live in less than ideal physical conditions, perhaps in a small town, a bad job, a broken family, there’s still something you can do. Search around for someone who inspires you, someone who is a good person, who is what you aspire to be. Now fix them in your mind. They are your guide, your standard, your mentor, your companion.
4. What to look for. The best environment is one that amplifies your strengths and encourages you to fortify your weaknesses. The best environments encourage you to be best version of you, regardless of how well that aligns with the image of the group.
YAWYSYW is not a truth, it’s a strategy.
You are not the sum of your environment. The human formula is far more complicated than that. It influences us, sometimes greatly, but it does not define us. Who we are and who we are becoming is not determined by who our best friends are. It’s determined by the standards we hold ourself to, the expectations we make of yourself and the choices we make.
You are not your environment. You are not the communities you move amongst. You are not the average of the five people you spend the most time with. You are not anyone else. You are you.
You are who you choose to be.