The Power of the People Around You


An enormous part of self-improvement are the people whom you surround yourself.

I’ve had the opportunity to spend time at world-class organizations — in sport, places that produce numerous Olympic medals; in work, places that invent groundbreaking new products and services. What sets the best apart from the rest isn’t cutting-edge technology, ritzy facilities, or even great individual athletes, coaches, engineers, or leaders. It’s the supportive community and culture; when everyone is dedicated to getting better and supporting each other in doing so. This kind of culture makes doing the hard thing just a little easier, whether the “hard thing” is a specific task, keeping a positive attitude amidst a string of setbacks, or gritting out a tedious stretch of work.

What’s interesting is that while positivity and great leaders can boost the group up (i.e., “a rising tide lifts all boats) it’s negativity that is unfortunately more powerful. In other words, most teams are pulled heavily toward the lowest common denominator. As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus said years ago, “Remember that if you consort with someone covered in dirt you can hardly avoid getting a little grimy yourself.”

Working to build a better self almost always means working to build a better community or tribe with which you surround it.

Consider a 2010 study of United States Air Force Cadets in which psychologists from the National Bureau of Economic Research tracked a cohort of cadets over 4 years. The researchers found that while there was variability in fitness gains and losses across all the cadets, there was hardly any variability across the average fitness of the squadrons. Squadrons are groups of about 30 cadets to which an individual is randomly assigned prior to his freshman year. Cadets spend the vast majority of their time interacting with peers in their squadron. In a sense, the squadron becomes a second family: Cadets in the same squadron eat, sleep, study, and work out together. Even though all the squadrons trained and recovered in exactly the same manner, some squadrons showed vast increases in fitness over 4 years whereas others did not.

It turns out the determining factor as to whether the 30 cadets within a squadron improved was the motivation of the least fit person in the group. If the least fit person was motivated to improve, then his enthusiasm spread and everyone improved. If, on the other hand, the least fit person was apathetic or, worse, negative, he dragged everyone down. Just like diseases easily spread through tight-knit groups, so does motivation. And it’s quite contagious.

The people with whom you surround yourself have a large impact on your life. In many ways, they shape it.

Even the simple act of observing others can affect your own motivation, and in ways far broader than physical fitness. For instance, researchers at the University of Rochester had subjects watch a video of someone describing themselves as being either intrinsically motivated (i.e., motivation comes from within) or extrinsically motivated (i.e., motivation comes from external recognition and rewards) to play a game. Those who were assigned to watch the video of people describing themselves as being intrinsically motivated reported feeling more intrinsically motivated themselves. Furthermore, when researchers left the subjects alone, those who had watched the intrinsic video started playing — and of their own volition — the same game shown in the video, while those who watched the extrinsic video did not. Perhaps most fascinating is that these effects were strong irrespective of whether someone identified as being intrinsically or extrinsically motivated prior to the experiment. It’s as if your own attitude pales in comparison to the attitudes of those around you.

So much focus on behavior change and performance focuses on the individual. Yet that’s only half the story. Working to build a better self almost always means working to build a better community or tribe with which you surround it. This concept holds true whether you are trying to get better at running, painting, writing, making music, parenting, or coaching. It also holds true if you are trying to quit smoking, adhere to a healthier way of eating, or start a new exercise program. It’s true if you are a beginner or on the verge of becoming world-class. In other words, the people with whom you surround yourself have an enormous impact on your life. In many ways, they shape it.

Who is in your squadron? Whose motivation is rubbing off on you?

It’s no wonder why the world’s best performers prioritize building and nurturing community. As Plato once said, “What is honored in a culture gets cultivated there.” Putting yourself in cultures that work in service of your goals and values is a powerful way to ensure you live them.

— Brad

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