The people we spend time with are key to our development and a major force in shaping our personalities.  The power they exert over us is omnipotent, and almost unfair.  Think of children born in a bad community–where they have no way to choose a different peer group–who are pressured by the community to join gangs as young teenagers and wind up in jail before their eighteenth birthday.  When you think about it, there’s really nothing different about them from us: they just happened to have terrible influences guiding their decisions.

How do social groups affect us?

We might not have joined gangs, but our relationship to our peer groups isn’t much different: we can’t help but be strongly influenced by those around us.  So if they are good people, they will help us and encourage us to accomplish our goals.  If they are bad, they will either not help or actively discourage us.

Social groups affect us in 4 main ways:

1. Define our personality (how we talk, what we like, how we treat others, etc.)

2. Define our values (what we find important, what really matters to us in life)

3. Guide our interests (what we spend our time doing)

4. Apply pressure (to conform to the above)

So I ask you:  is your social group helping you, or hurting you?

In some cases, it’s easy to tell, like the gang example above.  But what’s more pertinent to us is the less obvious: understanding how groups of people that seem decent can actually be working against you as you seek to accomplish your goals.

Many people think “social group?  The people I hang out with?  That’s no big deal: we just hang out on weekends, what difference can they make?”  Let me show you:

Think of average, decent people.  They are kind, hardworking, and honest; but they lack one important area: happiness with their careers.  They talk about how they hate their boss and “working for the man”, and how “only 7 more years of work and I’m retiring!”, or how they can’t stand their coworkers.  I always wondered, “why do people complain about this stuff, but never do anything about it?”  As I got to know more people like this, I noticed a pattern: these kinds of people tended to be around other people like them; others who bellyached about their problems.  They go out on weekends or after work, and complain about their jobs together.  After a while, these people became an anchor for each other: they never encouraged each other to do anything to better their situation, and in fact gained validation from belittling and criticizing others.  So eventually, it became “okay” not to try to fix the problem, and complaining about it was just fine.  In the long run, these people just hurt themselves.

Are your social groups like that?  Filled with those that, even if they are nice, decent people, drag you down and encourage negativity rather than action?

Your unequivocal goals must be to surround yourself with people that will help you grow and improve.

A social group that helps you pressures you to do well.  It:

  • Motivates us to do things that are useful, challenging, and that help us grow.

They motivate us to try new things, to see ideas in a new light, to use our time well, to accomplish goals, and to seek success and happiness.

  • Encourage intelligence, and help us “fill the gaps” in our own knowledge

They complement our weaknesses through their strengths, and vice versa.  They also encourage education, personal development, taking risks, and undertaking interesting goals.

  • Diverse where it counts

They have extensive and diverse experience, knowledge of other cultures, academic backgrounds, etc.; which helps us become more well-rounded, gives us new ideas, and helps us “fill the gaps” in our own knowledge.

  • Similar where it counts

They all encourage the things I mentioned above, regardless of their specific backgrounds.

A social group that hurts you pressures you to do poorly.  It:

  • Encourages or requires complacency

They see personal improvement, success or diligence as “trying too hard” or thinking you’re better than everyone else, and chides you if you fail; or they just don’t understand you.  They prefer stagnation over change.

  • Relies on negative cues to keep the relationship together.

Such as coworkers who get together to complain about their jobs.

  • Lacks diversity, and doesn’t push you or help you get better.

Social group is not interested in education, intelligence, achieving goals, or development.  Most people aren’t interested in new or unique ideas, or don’t have new or unique ideas; or all have similar background knowledge or expertise.

Good social groups encourage and help you accomplish your interesting and worthwhile goals.  Bad social groups don’t care, think you’re weird, or would rather just complain about something.

Let me add some context by telling you about my social group:

My social group is almost exclusively other entrepreneurs, other writers, other business people, and people who endeavor to accomplish interesting goals.  I have many friends in China, one of who is a writer for a famous newspaper in Shanghai.  Though my friends all have similar personality traits, their backgrounds are diverse: I have a friend in New Zealand starting a DJ business.  I have friends working in tech start-ups, in start-ups related to radio broadcasting; I have friends that write extensively on various social and psychological issues.  I have friends who have their own real estate investment funds.  I have friends that have lived and worked abroad extensively, and some who have worked for the European Union.

When I talk with my friends, we talk about current events, politics, sociology, business, and entrepreneurship, particularly new ventures we are working on, or ventures we are interested in.  We share business ideas.  We encourage each other.  We share knowledge.  We go and exercise together (tennis is my favorite).  I find that these people constantly challenge me to do better (and make me feel bad when I haven’t accomplished enough).

By surrounding myself with people that have helped me grow, I automatically feel pressured to grow and get betterIf my friends have started a successful business, but I haven’t, I feel pressured to get to work and try to start a business of my own.

By having people around whose personalities are similar, but specific interests are different, I get to learn a lot of cool things, and develop new and novel ideas for myself (remember that the key to creativity is knowledge).

Wouldn’t you like to have that automatic pressure, forcing you to get better?  It makes your job a whole lot easier!

How can you surround yourself with a good social group?

  • Be sincere about your goals and aspirations

Think about your current social group.  Aren’t you hanging out with them because they seem like a good match for you?  I bet it happened naturally.

The same thing goes with finding a solid social group that pushes you to accomplish goals.  If you are someone that wants to be successful, wants to develop, and wants a social group that pushes you to do better, you will naturally be attracted to others who want the same thing, and they will be attracted to you.

  • Find the “I see” people

In my article Why others’ opinions are worth less than you think, I talk about deciding whose opinions are worth listening to.  I argue that there are two types of people: “I see” people, and “oh” people.  I see people will understand why you are doing what you’re doing, even if they don’t agree with the specifics; so they understand why you want to be an entrepreneur, even if they think your business idea is bad.  “Oh” people don’t have a clue (e.g. they never considered starting their own business and have no real insight), but will encourage your or discourage you without valid cause.  “I see” people that understand why you’re working towards accomplishing interesting goals are the ones you want to be around.

  • Actively seek out interesting experiences; engage in activities that people you want to be with would engage in.

Readily coming to mind are things like studying abroad, teaching English in China, starting a business, or trying to network with someone that can really help you.  Who do you think are the other people that pursue interesting, unique, and “outside of your comfort zone” experiences”?  They’re other people like you: motivated, outside-of-the-box, ambitious type people.  People bond over activities; so pursuing activities that a good social group would do will help you meet them and secure them as friends.

  • Pursue your goal without apology.

Don’t feel bad about taking control of this issue and doing what you need to do.  Do you think others or your current social group will wonder why you are spending so much time working on your business or meeting interesting people, rather than watching football with them?  Probably.  But who cares?  It’s your life and your happiness.  Pursuing your goal without apology goes back to being sincere about your goals and aspirations.  If you’re sincere about what you want to do, you will do so without second-guessing yourself or feeling bad that you’ve been successful.

Our social groups are one of the most important influencing factors in our lives.  So it’s incumbent upon us to have a good social group that pushes us to success.  Anything else is just an anchor.

Photo Credit: RIA Novosti archive, image #315891 / Valeriy Shustov / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons







  • Brian M. Hays

    RC, this topic is much more important than most people realize. As I’ve traveled, changing my surroundings and community, I’ve seen my behavior change considerably. We need to be careful to surround ourselves with people who will have the most positive impact on us.