Cheers for Peers

In my first year of law school one of our professors assigned some additional reading. It was available only from a resource in the library. I must not have been the most enthusiastic student as at least one other beat me to it. When the librarian brought the reference book to me, I opened the book only to find that the pages assigned had been ripped from the book. My initial reaction was mixed. On the one hand I was grateful that I had an excuse to not do the work. On the other, I thought what kind of person would do this? It was a firsthand introduction to the cutthroat nature of competition that was likely to be at the heart of the profession. If this was the way things were in the first year, was it likely to get better? What did the willingness to rip pages out of a law library’s reference text say about the individual doing it? What was this person’s ethical compass? If this type of behavior was part and parcel of those in the profession, was this a place I wanted to be? Even then I realized that a big part of any profession or job is the people with whom we work. By picking a profession, we’re picking our peers. By picking our peers, we’re picking both a big factor on our career satisfaction and an influence on our personal development.

Parents may recognize that by the time their children reach teenage status, the children spend more time with their friends than family. A parent’s ability to influence and direct the affairs of their children shifts and the power of the peer group becomes a driver in the direction of a child. Others will judge us simply based on who we’re hanging out with. We’re painted with the same brush. In the original Rocky movie, Rocky Balboa encounters a high school friend. As he’s walking her home he reminds her of this saying, “See, they don’t remember you, they remember the rep…You hang out with nice people, you get nice friends. You hang out with smart people, you get smart friends. You hang out with yo-yo people, you get yo-yo friends.” Beyond Rocky, the Bible in Corinthians 15:33 offers, “Do not be deceived. Bad company ruins good morals” Wise parents accept this transition as inevitable and do their part to nudge their children away from “yo-yo friends” and “bad company” towards the company of peers they hope will be a positive influence. Parents may try to enroll their children in specific schools or sports programs with a driving purpose being the type of kids that sign up.

Our peers aren’t just our social group. They are much more than with whom we’re hanging out. Peers influence our interests, decisions, direction, and identities. It has been said that we become who we have coffee with. Consider that if we become like those we hang out, then we should be seeking groups that help us and not hurt us. As the stoic philosopher Epictetus observed several thousand years ago, “It is inevitable if you enter into relationships with people on a regular basis that you will grow to be like them…Remember that if you consort with someone covered in dirt you can hardly avoid getting a little grimy yourself.” Those that aren’t seeking improvements will try to find like minded folk that are content with where they are. Spending time with those that are stagnant and complaining will only lead to you being dragged into these depressing deliberations. In The Millionaire Fastlane, M.J. DeMarco writes, “Bad relationships are roadblocks to Fastlane success. They drain energy and dim dreams. It’s like rowing a boat upstream. Unwilling passengers add weight, distract, and sometimes are expensive to remove.”

A positive power of peers was evidenced in research in the late 70s done at the University of Illinois. Leann Lipps Birch conducted a number of studies with hopes of learning how to positively influence kids to eat not just vegetables, but, specifically, those that children did not like. Telling the kids these vegetables were good for them wasn’t working. Exhorting them to eat them with strong direction didn’t work. Surprisingly, offering rewards like ice cream didn’t much move the needle of behavior either. Even having an adult or parent role model the desired behavior of eating the vegetables didn’t drive much difference. The one thing that worked repeatedly and fully? When researchers sat a child with a distaste for a given vegetable at a table with other kids that didn’t mind eating it, they found that the child with a distaste was much more willing to try the vegetable they were working to avoid. Moreover, within a few meals with the same group of kids, the vegetable haters were eating vegetables just like the other kids. A positive power of peers at work.

Other studies of peers have continued in subsequent years. A sociologist from Stanford, Doug McAdam studied students who signed up to participate in a volunteer summer program. After the initial commitment, some kids stuck with the organization while many dropped off. What was the difference between those that stayed with the program and those that didn’t? The natural assumption was that those that stayed with the program believed in the cause. Interest in the ideology was thought to be the inspiration for involvement. To the researchers, the surprising conclusion was that commitment to the cause was not the contributor they thought it was. Instead, the predictor of participation was how many close friends, too, signed up. The more one’s friends signed up, the more likely an individual was to sign up and continue participation in the program. In Dedicated, Pete David writes of McAdam’s studies, “The conclusion: We overestimate the power of our individual beliefs and underestimate the power of our relationships in determining our actions.”

Our peers can either impede or inspire our progress. Chickens of a feather agree together. Fear breeds fear. Carefully curate your connections. Find like-minded folk trying to learn positive ideas. Just like you are what you eat we become like those with whom we associate. A Harvard study led by Alison Hill found “that having four obese friends doubled people’s chance of becoming obese compared with people with no obese friends.” The good news is that sharing goals with others trying to do the same things can be a positive influence. Tara-Nicholle Nelson used to work for the company that developed the MyFitnessPal app. She wrote of her experiences in a 2017 book, The Transformational Consumer. Her experiences with MyFitnessPal uncovered that users seeking to lose weight who shared their food diaries with friends lost twice as much weight as those that didn’t share. Additionally, those with more friends (ten or more) using the app lost much more weight than users with no other friends using the app. Those with friends lost four times the weight. Nelson also noted that most users (56%) valued the company of others when exercising as the presence of others contributed to both a commitment to show up and work harder than they would on their own.

“People who succeed at long-term goals never succeed alone. They build and nurture relationships around them that provide support, advice, and accountability,” writes Caroline Adams Miller in Getting Grit. Peter Hollins in The Science of Self-Discipline notes that “strategically surrounding yourself with supporters, challengers, and role models can have a marked benefit on your life.” We’re not looking for a peer group of just those praising us. We should look for those that will poke, prod, and provoke us to push harder. Peer group isn’t important just for those getting started in the work force. It’s a key component of job satisfaction, fulfillment, and career development throughout our working lives. A large component of corporate culture is little other than how colleagues get along with each other. Our work peers substantially influence the culture of our organizations.

Jim Rohn has noted that we become the average of the five people with whom we spend the most time. If Rohn is correct, then we would do well to consciously curate our cohort. Take heart in encouragement from Professor Jordan Peterson who has said, “It’s a good thing, not a selfish thing, to choose people who are good for you.” Tom Peters in The Excellence Dividend goes further offering, “Your ‘hang out with’ portfolio can be and should be as carefully concocted—and managed and evaluated—as your budget or strategic plan… Who you spend your time with may well be the single-most important variable associated with your personal and enterprise success.” The late rapper, Nipsey Hussey, is credited with saying, “If you look at the people in your circle and you don’t get inspired, you don’t have a circle. You have a cage.”

Gerber writes, “So how do you go about building your own strong foundation? First, assess yourself. Are you in control of the relationships in your life, or are you ceding that control to others? That standing lunch date, or the conference you’ve attended for years because your pal is involved—when is the last time those interactions either provided value or allowed you to give value? Do you come away energized or drained? If you are not deciding the rules of engagement and making deliberate choices about who you are spending time with, then you need to take back that control.” You’re going to spend years with your peers, it makes sense to try to choose some wisely. Own the privilege of picking your peers. Are you choosing your crowd consciously? Jeff Olson writes in The Slight Edge, “Look at the people with whom you flock, the company you keep: what destination are they headed for? And is that where you want to be headed?” As the Western provinces are in the midst of getting together again and enjoying in person broker association conventions, it’s a great time to think about your peers and enjoy some time together.

In Simplify Your Life, author Mary Conroy encourages us to ask “how do your fundamental values relate to the people you choose to spend your time with?” Conroy then asks a more pointed question, “Who makes a positive contribution to your life? From here, she encourages us to make a list of people you spend time with today across dimensions of your life and note for each person whether they have a positive, neutral, or negative effect on your life. Conroy writes, “Next, ask yourself the following questions about each person: Does being with them make you happy? Does your happiness matter to them and does it affect their behavior toward you. Does your relationship with them satisfy you or do you feel slightly wanting after being in their company? Do they help you grow? Do they support you when you’re veering off course in challenging situations? Do they contribute to your life in a positive and meaningful way? When the seven questions have been applied to each person, is your overall response that their effect on your life is positive, negative, or neutral?” This type of conscious consideration of your peers isn’t easy and may be quite uncomfortable to undertake.

In a 2018 HBR article by Scott Gerber, Gerber encourages us to ask, “What types of people do you want to spend more time with, and what types do you want to cut out entirely? Gerber suggests curating our core colleagues carefully based on common beliefs and values. Conroy supports Gerber’s suggestion writing, “The most important element of a friendship, or any form of meaningful relationship, is having shared values.” From shared values, we should be looking further to mutual commitment. Sam Kyle writes in Playing the Long Game, “Are you really spending time with people who encourage you to get better?” We’re looking for those that you care about and that care about you. It’s about conscious collaborating as opposed to haphazard socializing. There’s neither strength nor safety in numbers. We’re not working to drive double digit growth in our LinkedIn connections. We don’t want to say yes to any connection. We want to trade breadth for depth. Gerber quotes a networking expert, Darrah Brustein, who notes, “It’s important to consider the five people who are in your inner circle, because they are going to deeply and profoundly influence you… it means seeking out, and nurturing relationships with good, smart people who can help you to be a bigger and better version of yourself.” We’re not selecting based on a purely transactional lens. We want make a long term commitment to the development of others as well as find those that will help bring out the best in us. In Mentors, Russell Brand suggests, “Note the people around you. Do they want you to grow? Or do they want you to stagnate or diminish? Observe them. Who do they want you to be? You may not need to eliminate them from your life, but you will need to renegotiate.” An alternate question to consider is one posed by author James Clear, “Do the people around me act the way I wish to act?” Once we recognize that the power of peers is real we want to take time to think about our own answers to these questions in order to take ownership of our network. Are you drinking beers and saying cheers with peers or are you picking peers that will help you develop in your career?