Improve Your Life by Improving Your Friends

You are the average of the five people you associate with most.

It’s a statement you’ve likely heard before, but it truly is profound. While some may argue we are individuals of conscious thought and free will, it is undeniable that our behavior is influenced by our peer group. We’re creatures of emulation, and put in an environment long enough, we begin to assimilate. The people we spend time with influence our thoughts, our behaviors, our habits, our mindsets, and the other people we meet — it’s a virtuous, or harmful, cycle.

A comprehensive study in 2007 made it clear just how much our friends can influence us. The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, closely followed over 12,000 people for 32 years to track their health habits over the years. The results speak for themselves:

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  • When a friend became obese, it increased one’s chances of becoming obese by 57 percent.
  • When a mutually close friend became obese, it increased the likelihood by a resounding 171 percent.
  • The same effect occurred for weight loss. When a friend picked up healthier habits and lost weight, it increased one’s likelihood of doing the same.

The researchers explained that our friends change our opinions on what we believe to be appropriate social behavior. This makes sense. Few of us actively choose to gain weight, but when we see our friends helping themselves to dessert after dinner, we tend to follow suit. These small habits that seem benign at first slowly add up and compound over the years.

Evolutionary psychology may play a role as well. In the days of hunters and gatherers, we relied on tribes to meet our basic needs. Not fitting in or going against the tribe signaled an early death, thus it was crucial to follow the rules of the pack. This desire to fit in has likely remained hardwired into us today, which manifests into social and peer pressure.

It isn’t far-fetched to extrapolate the findings on health influences to other areas in life. If you want to develop a way of thinking or acting, associate with those who already embody those qualities. Likewise, reduce how much time you spend with people who are a negative influence on you.

The following quote by American politician and former four-star general Colin Powell perfectly summarizes this.

The less you associate with some people, the more your life will improve. Any time you tolerate mediocrity in others, it increases your mediocrity. An important attribute in successful people is their impatience with negative thinking and negative acting people. As you grow, your associates will change. Some of your friends will not want you to go on. They will want you to stay where they are. Friends that don’t help you climb will want you to crawl. Your friends will stretch your vision or choke your dream. Those that don’t increase you will eventually decrease you.

This is a particularly interesting topic to me at this time because of how it applies to my own life. I’ve realized if I want to take the next step forward in my life, I need to surround myself with others who share my level of ambition and drive to create a purposeful life. Some of the people closest to me right now are friends I’ve had for many years, but they’re the type to come home from work and watch TV or play DotA until it’s time to go to bed, seven days a week. It’s a fine life, but it’s not one that I wish for myself. Yet despite my grievances, I can feel myself being drawn into that sort of complacency.

As Powell suggests, I’m increasing my own mediocrity by tolerating it from those around me. While I don’t intend to cut these friendships altogether, it’s clear I need to branch out and meet new people.

This is scary, of course. Our inclination is to seek out those who are already similar to us. But as with anything in life, growth often occurs in the ensuing change after problems are confronted. A certain onus lies on each of us to seek out those who will challenge and inspire us to better ourselves — and in turn, for us to do the same.

Perhaps you feel the same way. Maybe a little part of you feels unsatisfied with the average of who you’re becoming. If that’s the case, I encourage you to sacrifice a degree of comfort and begin to expand your network. Find people you wish to emulate and learn from, and do everything you can to create those new connections. Figure out how to add value to their lives, and surely they will seek your company just as much.

The simple but true fact of life is that you become like those whom you closely associate with — for better or for worse. And as the science has shown, if someone isn’t making you stronger, they’re making you weaker.

It’s up to each of us to decide which it will be.

Master The Fundamentals, The Rest Will Follow

Every human activity, endeavor, or career path involves the mastering of certain skills. These skills can take many different forms, from direct and obvious, such as operating tools, to more nebulous abilities, such as handling people. But what remains true across the field is that top performers have a much stronger grasp on the fundamentals – the core skills that create the foundation of everything else.

If you’ve ever been to a public gym, you’ll probably have seen people doing absurd types of exercises. More than likely, it’ll involve a bosu ball. The exercise may look cool (or ridiculous), but such movements rarely provide any strength or fitness benefits.

When it comes down to it, there are really only five exercises that you need to do in order to get stronger, faster, or better looking. These are the compound exercises that form the foundation of weightlifting: the squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, and row. If you were to only do these movements for the rest of your life, you would achieve an inordinate physique and strength. This is essentially what the great Classical bodybuilders of the 1800s to early 1900s did, when fancy gym equipment didn’t exist.

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Yet, most gym-goers tend to ignore the fundamentals and opt for more esoteric exercises under the impression that the “cooler” it looks, the better it is. This is a mistake, but it’s easy to see why. In our hurry to acquire new skills, we rush through the fundamentals because of their seeming simplicity. We tend to ignore the fundamentals in favor of details and specificity. We lose sight of the big picture and wonder where we’re doing wrong when we inevitably don’t see the results we desire.

This doesn’t only happen in weightlifting, it applies to any endeavor.

Take poker, for instance. One of the first things newcomers to the game try to learn is the importance of physical “tells.” These are the mystical signs players will show to indicate the type of hand they have. Every time he blinks twice in a row, he’s bluffing, but if he blinks three times in quick succession, he’s got it! In reality, the importance of physical tells is minimal. It’s a minor detail in the big picture of any decision-making process in poker. Yet, amateurs will often try to stare down their opponents for any sign of a clue, while ignoring the basic fundamentals of the game as they’re playing their favorite hand of Q4-offsuit. Such people will often wonder how it’s even possible to play poker online, when you can’t see the other players’ faces. Again, it comes back to the fundamentals. These are the core concepts such as hand ranges, basic probabilities, pot odds, value-betting, and bankroll management.

In poker, if one were to learn and master the fundamentals alone, he or she would immediately push himself to the top of the player pool; much like the weightlifter who masters the five fundamental movements of weightlifting. The same is true in any other field.

“The minute you get away from fundamentals – whether it’s proper technique, work ethic or mental preparation – the bottom can fall out of your game, your schoolwork, your job, whatever you’re doing. -Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player ever, is also the staunchest supporter of fundamentals. While we may remember him for his spectacular dunks and buzzer-beating shots, what wins games and championships are the fundamentals.  Plenty of other basketball players were just as athletic or had fancier moves than Jordan, but lacked the same mastery of the basics to achieve the same level of success. Other top performers have echoed Jordan’s words, including the current NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, a team devoted to playing the game of basketball at its most fundamental level.

If it’s possible to elevate your level of success in an activity by working on the fundamentals, why don’t more people do it?

The truth is that learning the fundamentals isn’t fun. It’s not sexy. It’s not something people will pat you on the back for or admire. It won’t be shown on the highlight reel, and it probably won’t be memorable enough to even talk about. The majority of people are unwilling to go through this silent period and bring far too much variety into their practice before sufficiently mastering the basics. It’s the equivalent of attempting to do a one-legged squat on a bosu ball before learning how to properly execute a barbell backsquat.

If you intend to improve in your field, you must be able to undergo this type of painful deliberate practice, despite its tediousness. In weightlifting, perhaps this means starting light and perfecting your deadlift form until it’s perfect. In poker, perhaps this entails learning how to quickly calculate pot odds in your head until it’s second nature. In business, perhaps this means engaging with customers to deliver greater value to them, rather than creating reports that end up in a file cabinet. Whatever the activity, learning and honing the fundamentals will deliver a disproportionate amount of improvement. Those that are able to endure this tedious stage of skill acquisition ultimately become the masters in their fields, while the rest short-circuit their learning process by opting for pleasure and distraction.

At its core, any activity is based on some foundation comprised of fundamentals. Learn, practice, understand, and master these concepts, and the rest will follow. Do not get caught up in the details that lead to minute differences until these foundations of success have been built. As Jim Rohn once aptly said, “Success is neither magical nor mysterious. Success is the natural consequence of consistently applying the basic fundamentals.”

The 6 Rules to Making Money

I enjoy watching commencement speeches. It’s an event where those most accomplished share their most profound insights to those about to embark on their own journeys into the world. It’s 20-minutes of pure, unfettered advice. And while I have warned in the past about not taking advice, I caveat it by saying not all advice is equal. Advice from those at the pinnacle of their fields warrant serious consideration.

David Rubenstein is one of those people whose advice you should probably listen to. He is best known as the co-founder and co-CEO of The Carlyle Group, one of the most established private equity firms in the world. His net worth is over $3 billion. He recently gave the commencement speech at the 2014 Wharton MBA Commencement. He laid out the six rules to achieving financial success, or, in his words, “all you need to know in 5 minutes to make a great deal of money.”

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1)      Perseverance is infinitely more important than brilliance or even a reasonably high degree of intelligence. Not taking “no” for an answer will yield far more financial rewards than will acquiescence to conventional wisdom. Do not give up your own beliefs or passions easily or quickly.

2)      Hard work will yield greater financial rewards than a 9-5 workstyle. If you really want to get ahead financially, long hours are unfortunately a prerequisite. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, John Huntsman, Jack Welch, Oprah Winfrey, Sheryl Sandberg, and Joseph Wharton, and countless other business giants, put in the time needed to make a mark on the world. So recognize that anything really worth achieving in business or life takes a serious time commitment.

3)      Focusing on one area or subject where you can truly make yourself an expert. Your organization’s indispensable resource will lead to further responsibilities and benefits. Avoid spreading yourself thin by trying to do too much before you do one thing extremely well. Once you’re established as an expert in one area, other opportunities will inevitably come to you and your responsibilities and rewards will inevitably increase.

4)      Learning how to persuade others to do what you want is the essence of a successful business career, and the essence of life in many respects. To do that well, you need to learn how to communicate effectively by writing and speaking well. But more importantly, you need to learn how to communicate well by the most effective means of persuading: by the example you set in your own actions or conduct. Hone these means of persuasion in every opportunity.

5)      Place your energies into providing the best service or the best product possible. Do not focus on how much money you will make. The obsession with the making of money rarely leads to the making of money. The obsession with achieving excellence and with doing the best job possible, doing something no one else can do as well, is usually what leads to the making of fortunes. Money needs to be the happy byproduct, not the principle goal.

6)      Whatever financial success you might have at the outset, that success can be multiplied many times as people observe how you handle your intiail success. Humility, rather than arrogance, will lead to far greater financial success. There are exceptions to this rule, unfortunately, but you should not honestly want to be one of these exceptions. You should want to be someone who recognizes that luck likely played a real role in your success, and bad luck can come along at any point; so stay humble.

Follow these six rules and you will almost certainly with a modest amount of good luck, make a fair amount of money in life if that is your goal.

However, Rubenstein goes on to say that money will not bring happiness. Personal happiness, as elusive as that is to obtain, is a far better life goal than the making of money. “The happiest people I know,” he says, “are the biggest philanthropists. The happiest people I know are the ones who realize their money can do much more than buy bigger homes and yachts and status.”

This seems to be a common realization among those who have achieved massive financial success. More than a hundred billionaires have signed The Giving Pledge, a campaign where they promise to donate 50% or more of their wealth to charity. This also aligns with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, where the top of the pyramid is characterized by the pursuit of self-actualization, once all the other needs have been met. However, one need not be a billionaire before giving. Indeed, Rubenstein says that one of his regrets is not learning the lesson of helping others, the community, and the country earlier.

Do not make the same mistake I did. Do not wait till the last third of your life to give back. Do not wait till the opportunities to make a real difference in the world have passed you by. Do more than make money. Give back to your community, your society, your country. And do so even when you may not have large sums of money. By doing so, you will surely achieve happiness much earlier in your life. By doing so, you will lead a much more fulfilling and rewarding life. Trust me, what I say is true, and i have learned this to be the case many times over.

Giving your time, your energy, and your ideas, can be just as beneficial as anything else you do. Find an area in which to give back where you’re really interested in. Try to focus always on what you’re doing is making a difference, rather than adding to a resume. Focus on how your presence on the face of the Earth, as fleeting as it is, is justified by what you’ve done trying to make society and the world a slightly better place than you inherited it. Do not get to the end of your life and regret what you did not do in the earlier part of your life. Try to make the world a better place.

Everyone Starts Somewhere

In 1984, a 17-year old tried his hand at stand-up comedy for the first time at an open mic night in Boston. He jumped on stage and was given five minutes of time. With three minutes left, however, he realized he had run out of material. He walked off stage, discouraged. He didn’t perform again for another two years.

Since then, that 17-year old has gone on to become one of the most recognizable comedians alive. His name is Louis C.K.

How does a comedic genius fail at his first attempt at stand-up? Often, the greats we admire weren’t born into greatness. We think they can do no wrong, but we simply never see where they started. Behind every accomplished person there are countless hours of work and modest beginnings.

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As we strive towards our own goals or venture into new waters, we need to keep this in mind. Whether it’s business, fitness, or art, remember that the expert at anything was once a beginner. And it probably wasn’t pretty.

Ira Glass eloquently articulates this in the quote below. It takes time before your work truly shines. I remind myself of this whenever I feel a disconnect between what I envision my writing to look like and reality.

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.

A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.”

We’re all amateurs when we start out. It’s the work we do after that slowly turns us into masters. Quitting too early possibly closes a door forever. In Louis C.K.’s case, it would mean he might never had a career in comedy had he quit after his first attempt.

How do you prevent yourself from quitting too early? Try thinking in terms of years. Consider the following timeline from James Altucher:

  • Year One: you’re flailing and reading everything and just starting to DO.
  • Year Two: you know who you need to talk to and network with. You’re Doing every day. You finally know what the monopoly board looks like in your new endeavors.
  • Year Three: you’re good enough to start making money. It might not be a living yet.
  • Year Four: you’re making a good living
  • Year Five: you’re making wealth

Of course, it may take longer; Louis C.K. only released his first half-hour special after a decade. Regardless, keeping a long-term perspective will allow you to wither the bumps along the journey and stave off the desire to quit too soon.

Speaking of the journey, at times we’re all tempted to compare ourselves to others who are on the same road. We’ll wonder why they have X and why we don’t. Avoid this temptation. At any point, we’re ahead of some and behind others. Comparing your beginning to someone else’s middle serves no purpose except to detract from the work in front of you. Sometimes, it just takes time to catch up.

We all have goals to accomplish and dreams to achieve. Some of these aspirations may still be sitting on the metaphorical shelf gathering dust. Perhaps now is the time to sweep the dust off and give them a go. Starting somewhere is infinitely better than never starting at all.

Today, you’re just you. Down the road, you’re you the __________ (speaker/writer/entrepreneur/athlete/insert title). Maybe one day, people will even marvel at your success and ask you how you did it.

At which point, you can tell them even you started somewhere.