The people we surround ourselves with will define who we become.
Humans are social animals. Looking back over history we can see many examples where this is true, over both large groups (entire cities and cultures in fact) and small groups (individual family units).
In this essay I’ll talk about why it is so critical to choose your friends wisely, some challenges that may arise while expanding your peer group and some methods for locating these folks to begin with.
Who Are You?
[alert-announce]”Who are you?”…the answer will depend on who asked the question.[/alert-announce]
Take 60 seconds and speak aloud the answer to a single question, “Who are you?” In my case, I tend to start with my name, where I am from, and what I do in my career. The reality is, the answer will vary depending on the person asking.
If someone asks you in a work context, you will use a more formal description. If someone asks at a casual dinner party, you might use a more flattering description. If a child asks you, you might be a bit more funny. In any of these cases, has your identity actually changed? The answer is of course No, but your self-expression (including your behaviors and actions) will vary based on the people you interact with.
When I was in college, I was very physically active. I was an active member of the Penn State Triathlon Club. We would train daily, often twice a day.
The club, over 50 members strong, consisted of a) modest athletes b) top-tier high school athletes who didn’t quite make the cut for varsity teams at a large Division I school and c) former members of the Penn State Swimming or Track teams who got burned out from the training and quit, but still wanted to race and train with others.
I really got into the sport. In fact, I spent my Junior year living in a house with 10 other cyclists and triathletes! It was “the frat house for fit people.”
During my college days, I identified myself as a triathlete first, and everything else second. I received daily reinforcement that this part of my identify was important. Being around people who were more athletic than I was provided further motivation to develop my persona in this direction.
After college, this part of my identity lingered for several years. I continued to race. However, career become a bigger part of my identity. My peer group changed from people who were always going out for a run or bike ride, to people who were constantly talking about how stressful work was, how much more they should be paid and how they would be happier in other jobs.
My friends were now young, ambitious and by all measures successful members of corporate America. My own sense of self changed from “The Athlete” to “The Career Guy.” My peer group has significantly impacted the development of my persona.
Had I chosen to continue hanging around people who focused intensely on athletics, my identity would be radically different today. Neither the “The Athlete” or the “The Career Guy” are bad identities. I am merely citing them as an example of how my own persona has changed over the years.
More recently, my identity shifted yet again. I left a high paying and rewarding corporate career to spend a year traveling the world with my wife. During this phase of life I identified more with the entrepreneur (as I start my coaching business) and traveler crowds than I did with my corporate identity.
The moral of the story is this: your identity is radically affected by your peer group, like it or not. I have been lucky in that my peer group has never pushed me in unfavorable directions (e.g. drug abuse, excessive partying, excessive spending). At the same time, I am definitely looking to improve certain aspects of my life. Making a change will no doubt involve changing my peer group to some degree.
[alert-success]Social Proof is the theory that when people are uncertain about what to do, they look around at others to decide.[/alert-success]
There is a term in sociology called Social Proof that captures what is going on very well. Social Proof is the theory that when people are uncertain about what to do, they look around at other people to decide. It does not matter how independent or important you think you are. This law of nature still affects you. It affects celebrities. It affects athletes. It works on both subconscious and conscious levels. Here are some examples to help drive home the point.
- There are many cases where women who stay together in all-female dormitories at universities and convents have menstrual cycles in unison.
- Birds flock together in unison and can change direction rapidly without falling out of synch.
- People who work together in a similar environment will pick-up similar speech patterns and mannerisms without any conscious effort.
- Fashion trends spread by people seeing other people wearing a new garment, which signals that it is OK for you to start wearing the same thing.
Social Proof tells the brain that it is OK to think and feel a certain way. For those contrarians out there, it has an effect on you as well, just in an inverse manner. The higher the stress and complexity of a situation, the more your brain will look to your environment to see that it is OK to follow your path. This is an evolutionary circuit that allows us to adopt behaviors that will help us stay alive. However, in a modern society where mortality rates are much lower and success is defined by more than just staying alive….we need to be aware that this “circuit” could also limit our potential if not managed appropriately. Recognizing that your brain works in this manner will help you develop your mind into a powerful tool for creating lasting change in your life.
[alert-warning]Important: Please note that it is less important that you understand how social proof is impacting your actions, and more important to just realize that it is happening…period.[/alert-warning]
With this awareness you’ll be in a great position to redirect your mental energy into aspects of your persona that really need work (e.g. career, relationship, health, fun). You’ll be less susceptible to follow the crowd (unless the crowd is moving in a direction you want to go in). You’ll be more likely to seek out a peer group that will help you grow.
Making New Friends Can Change Your Life
After you have developed this fundamental awareness, you must begin to get real about your current situation. If your friends are constantly going out and drinking, and you aspire to have a clean and healthy body, a change must be made. If you are looking to become an entrepreneur, and all your friends are satisfied in corporate jobs with no entrepreneurial spirit, a change must be made. The change doesn’t mean that you need to get rid of your existing circle of friends. It just means that you need to focus on expanding your circle to better reflect the beliefs and values you would like to see in your own life.
It is amazing how applying this single action can totally change your perspective on what is possible.
For example, many years ago I decided to start working out again after several years of not doing too much. I had gone from being Vegan for several years to Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian. I had stopped weight training. I had stopped running regularly. I had started drinking coffee a lot. I had started going out more on the weekends (and some weekdays).
The funny thing is, compared to my own peer group, I seemed to be very fit. Actually, most people thought I was super-strict about my diet and very dedicated to training. The thing is, I knew I was not doing anything close to what my body was capable of. Comparing myself to my desk-bound co-workers was not going to help me achieve a peak level of physical health.
Therefore, I proactively sought out groups of people who had a higher standard for fitness and health. One great resource, the Vegan Bodybuilding Community, has been a huge motivating force for me throughout my life. I even had the chance to meet many of the folks in the community forum in person and join them on various vacations and meetups.
This peer group set a new standard for what it means to be socially conscious, healthy and super-fit. Several of the folks in this community are professional bodybuilders…and Vegan! Talk about fit! Redefining my peer group to include these folks was a great decision. I now feel motivated and supported in my adventure to regain my strength and achieve a much higher level of fitness than I have ever had.
The point is, no matter what aspect of life you are trying to improve, there are others who are either on the same journey or have achieved what you are trying to achieve. Find these people. Surround yourself with them. Learn from them and help them grow.
How To Make New Friends?
Expand your peer group can help your mind develop a new reference point for what you are capable of. How do you go about finding these new groups? Here are some resources and methods I have used.
- Internet Forums: Find community boards for whatever aspect of your life you are trying to improve. Spend time on the boards to determine who seems to be “in the know” and who is just blowing smoke. Share your own experiences and learn from others. In quick order, you’ll be sure to develop connections people who will help you on your quest.
- Meetup.com : Meetup is a very popular way to connect with people in person. I used to attend 2-3 different meetups every month. I’ve developed some great friendships through these gatherings. Check it out.
- Go where they go: Go to places where people you want to meet will hang out. It could be a social mixer. It could be a new exercise class. It could be a club. Find the community and make yourself part of it.
- Ask Experts: I’ve found that people who have achieved, are usually more than happy to help mentor or coach people who have a sincere desire to learn. This could include the very fit person at the gym you go to, the successful person at work who seems to get a lot done in a little amount of time, the entrepeneur running the booming business a block away from your house, etc.
Change Isn’t Easy
I’ll end this article with the simple statement that change is never easy. Whenever I’ve tried to make a big change in my life, I’ve found the most resistance from the people who seem to care about me the most (close friends and family). I’ve found this very ironic. This does not mean they don’t care about you, it just means that they are truly and deeply concerned for your own welfare. They don’t want to see you hurt.
[alert-warning]Expect resistance from those who care about you the most.[/alert-warning]
I mentioned earlier that our brain is wired to be risk averse. We are afraid of losing what we have. In the same manner, your friends will naturally be afraid of losing the person they’ve come to know so well. They will try to hold on to the “you” that they have known in the past (for better or worse). Perhaps the hardest part of redefining who you are is getting past this notion. You must stick it out. In the end, nobody will “lose you.” You will still be there, you’ll just be a little different for having followed your dream. Your friends will get used to it..chances are, they will start to appreciate you even more!