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*This post has been updated for the practices of personal leadership series.

Several years ago, while biking with my close friend, he casually mentioned the following quote which has rocked my perspective ever since….

“You are the average of the top 5 people you spend the most time with.” –Jim Rohn

To a huge extent, we become like the people we spend the most time with (including the mentors we follow, which we will talk more about next week).

Research shows this to be true in so many ways.

Our beliefs, our habits, our health, our lifestyles, even our incomes—are all powerfully influenced by our social network.

That is why being intentional and selective about our closest relationships is one of the most important things we will ever do for our personal leadership practices.

Who are you spending time with on a regular basis?

Are these the people that you want to become?

Many people are careless about their social environment, even though it represents one of the most powerful forces that will ever shape us.

The Galapagos

A few years ago, my wife and I got the chance to take a bucket list trip to the Galapagos Islands.

One of the fascinating things we got to see on our trip were Darwin’s famous marine iguanas, found nowhere else in the world. They served as a key species in unlocking his theories.

Marine iguanas are an incredible living example of evolution. Unlike any other iguana, their bodies have adapted to find food in the marine environment.

They can dive up to 100 feet deep and remain under water for up to 30 minutes. Over time, they developed flatter tails that propel them in the ocean, webbed feet for swimming, longer claws for clutching slippery rocks, and blunt noses in order to eat seaweed in tight underwater cracks.

Unlike the typical green iguana, their skin is also darker to absorb heat from the sun so they can remain warm while submerged.

The environment literally shaped their physical bodies.

As humans, we aren’t much different.

According to research, our environments play a gigantic role in shaping us—physically and psychologically.

Many people try to make changes in their lives while ignoring the raw power of the environments they are choosing to place themselves in. They simply believe they can use willpower to fight for the changes they are seeking.

But research shows this is not an effective strategy.

Willpower doesn’t work.

If you want strong personal leadership habits, the best way is to spend time with people who have the habits you want.

Choose your environments wisely

Organizational psychologist Benjamin Hardy spent most of his time in graduate school studying willpower.

His bestselling book Willpower Doesn’t Work is the culmination of his studies.

Hardy convincingly argues that people should use their limited willpower to consciously design their environments to make their goals easier to achieve.

When you want to change badly enough—you arrange your entire life around it.

As my former pastor used to say, “If you want to stop drinking, you don’t go to your favorite bar for the nachos.”

Whether you want to be a professional skier, a great writer, or ensure you stay sober—you have to get yourself around people further along in the journey.

You need to place yourself in the environments that will shape you into the person you desperately yearn to become.

Consider the following ways you can design your environments:

  • People you choose to hang out with (social environment)
  • Information you choose to consume (mental environment—read, watch, listen)
  • Places you choose to go (physical)
  • Experiences you chooseto have (memory and emotion)

Here are a few more studies that highlight the power our environment has on us…

In a massive study, The Equality of Opportunity Project at Brown University, results showed that whether you will improve your economic situation is highly predicted by the county you live in.

In their 2009 book Connected, Harvard and Yale alumni James Fowler and Nicolas Christakis explain research on how social networks influence many things from weight gain to heart disease to suicide.

The New England Journal of Medicine analyzed findings from the famous Framingham Heart Study that began in 1948, and concluded that “obesity appears to spread through social ties.”

This makes sense. If you follow someone’s social media stream, you are more likely to be influenced by their posts about anything from recipes to politics—or virtually any other behavior they promote or share about, because you are letting that information into your mind.

Another fascinating study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology suggests that back pain is a communicable disease that spreads through social contagion (an established psychological phenomena). To summarize the study briefly, in 1991 East Germany had much lower back pain rates than West Germany according to national health surveys. But 10 years after reunification, the rates were nearly identical. The authors concluded that people actually developed back pain as a result of being bombarded with media about back pain or meeting more people on disability for back pain!

Here is a quote from the study:

“We hypothesize back pain as a communicable disease and suggest a harmful influence of back-related beliefs and attitudes transmitted from West to East Germany via mass media and personal contacts.”

Be careful what you allow into your mind on a daily basis, because you raise the odds that you will think about it more.

And what you think about will affect your decisions and shape your life.

In our culture of hard-core individualism, we like to think we can make changes on our own while ignoring our physical, mental, and social environments, even though countless studies show it is one of the most powerful forces in shaping our behavior.

But do we really need scientific evidence to tell us this?

Consider the ancient Hebrew scriptures written more than 2700 years ago:

“The one who walks with the wise will become wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm.” –Proverbs 13:20

Choose wisely.

One disclaimer—One of the most important things in life is helping other people. That means you will devote a portion of your time to people in great need. However, your inner circle of friends should not be filled with people whose habits you don’t want.

Turn information into action

  1. What is your criteria for friends (or a partner) you are looking for? Be intentional. Write it down. How will you find the friends you want if you don’t know what you are looking for? Come up with a few core qualities that are most important to you. Needless to say, if you plan to get married, the person you marry will influence your life more than anyone else, so take your time and set high—but not perfectionistic—standards.
  2. Join a community group. One of the best ways to make friends who have the habits you want is to join a group. Do you want a better marriage? Do you want to start exercising more? Do you want better parenting skills? Whatever habit you want to develop, there is probably a group for it.
  3. End a relationship. In his wonderful book Necessary Endings, psychologist Henry Cloud says sometimes you need to make the difficult decision to end a relationship in order to make room for a new one.
  4. Go on “new friend dates.” The older I get, the more it seems that people are already established in tight social circles and not looking for new friends. But the seasons of life change and you never know when someone might also be looking for a change in their lives too. It can be awkward when you don’t find much in common but you might miss out on a lifelong friendship if you don’t take the risk.
  5. Consume what you want to become. Much of our social influence comes from books, podcasts, or social media. Be selective about what you consume.
  6. Teach your kids about the importance of quality friends. You need to model the selection of great friends, then let your kids overhear youtalking about this subject regularly. Start early and never let up.
  7. Be the friend you want. Yes, you need great relationships to make you the kind of person you want to be, but paradoxically, you also need to be the kind of person you want to hang out with! This will help you attract and keep those people in your life. Its synergistic, and you need to work at both.

Have a great weekend!


*If you have enjoyed Parker’s blog, check out The Next Peak Podcast that Parker co-hosts. We interview successful leaders and discuss research-based principles that help people win in the workplace without compromising the things that matter most—relationships, a life of purpose, and health.

Suggested Resources

  1. Willpower Doesn’t Work—Benjamin Hardy
  2. Connected—Fowler and Christakis
  3. Necessary Endings— Henry Cloud
Dr. Parker Houston

Parker Houston

Dr. Parker Houston is a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified in organizational psychology. He is also certified in personal and executive coaching. Parker's personal mission is to share science-based principles of psychology and timeless spiritual practices, to help people improve the way they lead themselves, their families, and their organizations. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
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