Surrounding Yourself with the Right People


You’re the average of the five people you spend most of your time with. If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas. Show me your friends and I’ll tell you who you are.

These quotes, the first by Jim Rohn [1], second by Benjamin Franklin [2], and third an old proverb [3], tell you everything you need to know about the effect the people you surround yourself with have on your life and trajectory. Surround yourself with smart, hard-working people and – wouldn’t you know it – you want to be smart and hard-working too. Hang out with lazy, negative types and before you know if you’ll be lazier and more negative than the rest. They’ll grind you down, dull your ambition and dampen your spirit. Then, one by one, the doors to all those brighter futures you’d envisioned for yourself will soon close, lock, and disappear from view.

The right people

“In my twenty-eight years as an executive search consultant, working across all major industries in more than forty countries, I’ve discovered that the key to outstanding performance and fulfillment – both in work and life – is the ability to surround oneself with outstanding people,” writes Claudio Fernández-Aráoz in his book It’s Not the How or the What but the Who [4].

Fernández-Aráoz explains how the attitudes of our husbands, wives, friends, employers, employees, mentors and colleagues affect us profoundly – and as such, how the decisions regarding whom we allow to fill these positions are the most crucial ones we can make.

Research shows that the habits of people we spend time with rub off on us. When studying the health habits of people who live in so-called “blue zones” – regions of the world with notably high life expectancies – National Geographic fellow and author Dan Buettnerr noted that positive friendships were a key recurring theme [5].

“Friends can exert a measurable and ongoing influence on your health behaviors in a way that a diet never can,” he says. For example, in Okinawa, Japan, people form social networks called maois. These moais consist of a group of five friends who offer social, logistic, emotional and even financial support to one another over the course of a lifetime. The average life expectancy for women in Okinawa is 90 years old, the highest in the world.

It’s basic human nature. Your friend orders the salad, all of a sudden you’re a little more hesitant to order the stuffed crust Mega Meaty with extra pepperoni. Conversely, your friend orders chicken wings, cheesy chips, beer and tequila and the voice in your head telling you to get the salad, go for a run later, and maybe hit the library quickly turns to an inaudible whisper.

Because it’s not just about surrounding yourself with the right people. It’s about not surrounding yourself with the wrong ones.

The wrong people

In Living for the Weekday: What Every Employee and Boss Needs to Know about Enjoying Work and Life, Clive Swindall writes that, “While your success can be determined in part by whom you surround yourself with, it can also be determined in part by whom you choose to not surround yourself with…If you’re around someone with a cold, there’s a good chance you’ll catch the cold. What are you catching from the people around you?” [6]

Negative thinking, laziness, cruelty, arrogance, delusion, bitterness. How many bad traits can we put up with from those around us before we start to embody them ourselves? People who spend a lot of time together end up speaking the same way. Couples who’ve been together for decades end up looking alike. Owners even come to look like their pets. Of course if we spend all our time with the person who calls in sick for work, bad mouths everyone around them and lies in until 11am on weekdays, we’re going to start adopting some bad traits too.

As such, Swindall recommends people “do an analysis of your circle of friends and see whether they add to your life or take away from it.” It can feel harsh, but most of us have people in our lives with whom we have consistently negative relationships. We walk away from every interaction asking ourselves in exasperation, “Why am I friends with this person?” Perhaps it’s time to ask the question more seriously – why? Is it because you genuinely enjoy their company, find them interesting, find them interested in you, think they’d be there for you when it mattered? Or just because you’ve known them a while.

Swindalll is “referring to the people in our lives who drain us of our energy because they thrive on sharing their own negativity. Refuse it. Don’t just walk away from the negativity – run. Get as far away from it as you can. Not only does it impact our perspective with regard to our own lives, it impacts our mental health.”

It should be noted that he is not advising us to simply abandon friends at the first sign of trouble. Someone we know may be going through a tough time, may not be themselves, and as such may be difficult to interact with for a period. In those scenarios, of course our job is to be there for them and to help in any way we can – otherwise we’d be proving ourselves to be the kind of person no one else should want to surround themselves with. But we’re all aware of the difference between a good friend having a bad day, week, month or year and a bad friend who constantly drains us. Chances are you’ve had a name in your head the whole time you’ve been reading this.


Mentors are the ultimate method of surrounding yourselves with the right people. Mentors can provide motivation, direction, coaching, training and advice. Are there people you admire in your chosen field? Reach out to them. It may be bold but boldness is often rewarded. You don’t have to set your sight for the top of the tree – Warren Buffet is unlikely to reply to your email – but if there’s a professor, boss or colleague you admire, a TedTalk that inspired you, a podcast that engaged you, or a LinkedIn post that roused you, why not reach out and see? People are kinder than we give them credit for.

Once you’ve tracked your dream mentor down, Fernández-Aráoz, writing in Harvard Business Review, advises that you are candid about the reason for your interest and that you ask specifically how to get started [7]. People like helping people who want to learn. As Nietzsche put it, “There is an innocence in admiration: it occurs in one who has not yet realized that [they] might one day be admired” [8].

If you think you’d benefit from a mentor but don’t have anyone in mind, head to conferences and lectures in your chosen field – even if you don’t make a mentor, you might meet a like-minded individual looking to do the same thing as you whom you can bounce ideas off; networking is always helpful. If you’re a University student or graduate, your University likely lays on alumni events that can help. Certain schools do the same.

If you can’t find a mentor or an event to inspire you, use the internet. The modern world allows you to listen to in-depth interviews with the best in business from pretty much every field in the world. Podcasts, YouTube, and LinkedIn are your allies. A wealth of knowledge is out there for you to soak up. Writing in Forbes, Jennifer Cohen refers to these mentors as the “friends in your head” [9]. Maybe for whatever reason you can’t surround yourself with inspirational people in your real life, but online you have no excuse.

Diverse viewpoints

When building the group you hope to feed off, ensure it is diverse, ideally in all aspects, but at least in thought. No matter how positive and talented your group is, if all you are doing is agreeing with one another, something is wrong. Having a plurality of ideas is essential. If your idea is not strong enough to survive being challenged, perhaps it’s not worth holding onto.

Similarly, when building out your network, the temptation is to make it one that demonstrates your strengths, but of far greater value is one that improves your weaknesses.

Research by Gianluca Carnabuci and Eric Quintane found that “the most effective way to unlock the full potential of your network is to maximize what we call “the complementarity premium” by building a network that supports you in areas where your cognitive style is not naturally suited. However, most people do just the opposite: They build networks that reinforce their natural strengths and this hinders their ability to perform at their best” [10].

We want to appear smart and talented. We want to be good. To do so, embarrassing as it may be, we have to expose some of our weaknesses first in order to make them better.

Surround yourself with the right people

Who we spend our time with matters. Traits and attitudes rub off. Spend too much time with someone else’s bad habits and you may soon find they’re your own. By asking yourself big questions, you can get an idea of the person you want to be, then assess those around you and ask if they’re going to help get you there. Obviously friendship is more than just a transaction – don’t abandon friends solely because they’re not stepping stones to the top. But there are likely to be people in your life that you know to be holding you back. Difficult as it may be, you need to ask yourself how long you’re going to let them.

Reach out to a mentor figure who inspires you, or if that’s not doable use “friends in your head” to keep improving. Be sure to develop your weaknesses and challenge your thinking from time to time. You need to take in all manner of competing perspectives. As John Stuart Mill put it, “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.”

More on Diversity

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Why Work Isn’t Working and Envisioning The Future Economy with Jess Rimington – Podcast