Mind the Company You Keep

Published:  10/05/2023

This post is about the friends, family, and intimate partners you surround yourself with. People are social creatures by nature. Solitary confinement in prison is a terrible punishment because it deprives the punished of social contact with other human beings. Other people may seem like a curse at times, but other people are also a blessing. We all have a need to be social. Some people need more social contact than others, but we all need some.
Humans need to socialize with others, and it is also true that humans are influenced by our surrounding culture and peer group.

There is a saying that we are the average of the five people that we spend the most time with. In my experience this is true. For some this is truer than for others, but you cannot fully prevent other people from rubbing off on you. To keep yourself growing and evolving, you need to make sure the people you are surrounded by aren’t dragging you down. That is why it is so important to choose your company wisely. Choose who you spend time with because literally the quality and direction of your life depends upon the company you keep.    

No one is truly self-made. We all have had help and influences. If you want to have a good life, avoid things that will harm the quality of your life. If you surround yourself with people that engage in harmful behaviors, you will likely do more of these harmful things yourself. Researchers have shown that if your friends drink (especially female friends) you’re more likely to drink. Likewise, if your friends abstain from alcohol, you are more likely to abstain. If you have friends that do drugs, spend time with dangerous individuals, drive recklessly, etc., you are more likely to either engage in the same behaviors or you will have your life negatively impacted by being around these hazards.

For example, if you have a friend that likes to shop lift, you could get swept up in the trouble that create through their behavior. This is not a small set of risks to take on. Being in the company of dangerous or reckless people is often how tragedy occurs. We have all heard those tragic stories about some freshman that died at a college party from alcohol poisoning or due to a drunken fall. Those terrible stories are extreme examples, but they demonstrate how spending time in bad company can lead to tragedy.

Typically, the company we keep affects our lives in more subtle ways. For example, if your friends or spouse exercise, you are far more likely to exercise. The opposite is also true. If they sit around and eat unhealthy food most of the time, they will influence you to do the same. If a close friend or spouse likes to spend all their money recklessly, you are likely to overspend trying to keep up with them.
Some habits are very catchy, typically, the bad ones. If your spouse overeats and stocks the house with chips and tasty dessert, you are far more likely to develop a habit of snacking and eating dessert. However, if your spouse exercises regularly, you may or may not exercise more than you otherwise would. Still, if you have a partner that prefers to walk after a meal, you will probably walk after your meals together. If you have one that prefers to sit on the couch after eating, you will likely sit with them.        

Sometimes other people make our lives hell. Try to keep the ones that make you feel bad at a distance (even if they are family); replace troublesome people with those that make you feel safe, supported, and those who motivate you to do better. For example, if someone around you always discourages you, you’ll need to decide if the discouragement is appropriate (i.e., is there is wisdom in their negativity?). More likely, they are projecting their fear onto you. If their fears seem overblown or out of place, you might need to stop sharing your plans with them. Find other topics to discuss.

Some people around you may not want to see you change for the better. This could be because they fear that you will leave them behind when you change, or it could be that your success makes them feel bad about themselves. If you encounter this in other people, you can try to bring them along with you on your journey of self-improvement, but if they are not open to change, you should distance yourself. Find people that are happy to see you grow.

On the flip side, if you find yourself feeling envious or negative about the moves others are making, think about why you feel that way. You might feel envious because you want what they have created for themselves. Put aside your envy and instead seek their help and advice so you can learn to achieve those same things for yourself.

Sometimes you have a negative reaction to hearing someone’s plans because you feel they are making a foolish choice. If you are close enough to be honest, try explaining your concerns. This can be tricky.
If you have explained your doubts and they aren’t taking your advice, then have an open mind and watch for the effects of their choices. If they end up in a bad place due to their choices, you will know that your instincts were right. However, if they end up being successful, then you need to decide if they were just lucky or if there is something you can learn from them.
In either case, it stings to be ignored or to have your advice rejected but try to remember that other people have their own wants and desires. It’s not a rejection of you. They may have different wants and desires than you, it doesn’t mean they don’t respect yours. If you support their choices, they will still value your advice in the future.  

As a side note, you want to have at least some people around you that raise your level. If you are the most accomplished person in your social set, you are helping those around you, but you aren’t benefitting from being exposed to someone that can teach you something. Of course, it is very unlikely that those around you have nothing to teach you. If you have chosen a good group of friends to surround yourself with, it is likely they will be able to help you become a better person in ways large and small.  

There are many ways to benefit from others. You don’t always need to know them personally. For example, if you read the books of talented people that are trying to teach you something, you are (in a sense) surrounding yourself with that person. If you want to retire early, read a book by someone that invested their way to an early retirement. Reading books by accomplished or wise people is a way to surround yourself with a helpful bunch of influencers.

Still, I believe face-to-face interaction is best, so if you want to learn to cook, spend time with those that know how to cook. Their love of cooking will rub off, and they will be happy to cook with you if cooking is their passion. When you want to learn something new, try to find someone that can serve as a coach. Of course, be careful about their other habits. If you want to learn to cook so you can prepare healthy meals at home, it won’t do to learn how to cook from a person that loves to finish a meal off with a couple of bottles of wine. That might end up having a net negative influence on your life. Instead, try to find a chef that shares in your other values too.

In summary, people are an extension of your environment. If you are trying to lose weight, don’t fill your house with ready to eat junk food. Likewise, if you want to exercise more, make friends with gym goers or join a recreational sports league.

Remember, people are not tools to be used for what they can offer you. Don’t use people but do look for people that demonstrate your most important values. They are the people you should share your life with.