In relationships, we are often subtly (or overtly) changing with the person or people we are surrounded by. Why is this? The misguided cliché, ‘you are the average of the five people you spend the most time around’ seems to come from this general dynamic. The reality is that we are constantly adjusting to improve our interactions or to get what we want out of the interaction. It’s like being on a sports team; we have to adjust to our teammates. Yet is Michael Jordan the ‘average of five people’? Bill Gates? Jeff Bezos? Let’s address this rule and talk about why establishing boundaries can help us.
Cum Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc
First off, there will always be many correlations that are true about the people we spend the most time around. We choose to spend time around people for various reasons. If we happen to smoke, then likely there’s going to be a smoker in our group. If we love talking about sports, there’s likely someone who loves talking about sports in the group. If we’re a billionaire, chances are there would be more rich people in the group.
Taking that concept to the extreme is what we get when we talk about the average of five people. People are cutting off friends and family, searching for ‘mentors,’ positive and rich people to hang around to network and increase their average. This may work for some, but aside from being disingenuous, it also isn’t the most reasonable thing to do.
What we have to remember is “cum hoc ergo propter hoc”, or for those not aspiring to learn latin or be like Nietzshe: *correlation does not imply causation*. Being around these people isn’t typically the reason we are successful, or positive, or smokers, or into sports. Unfortunately, this logical fallacy is often overlooked. It is very difficult in many cases to prove causation in certain types of statistics, and we need to be wary of this as it could have us focusing on the wrong thing.
We’re Average, on Average
Imagine that we are in high school or college, and we really want to be a good basketball player. So we decide to hang around good basketball players in hopes that their success and skills would somehow rub off on us. We want to be the average of them. If anyone said that, we’d laugh them out of the room. Clearly, we’d need to put in the work; we’d have to actually work at being a better basketball player. There would be a good chance if we did get better that we would end up friends with some of them, making the average rule true.
Not only that but on average, when we finally do make the team, we’d likely be the average of the players we play with. It is no different in terms of any other life concept or situation; whatever we do, whether it is good, bad, or indifferent, puts us in some ‘average category,’ on average. The average of five people rule is no different; it is a somewhat meaningless statistic that says we’re average, on average.
Bad Influences and Bad Hands
But what about ‘bad influences’? Imagine for a second that we are teenagers. We’re growing up with friends that are constantly in trouble with the law, stealing, doing extreme drugs, and causing general mischief, but we get along great with them. Or what if we are growing up with a family that is negative and hateful?
These influences definitely could have a negative impact on our lives, and this is also the contrary reason the ‘average of five’ is often cited, so we can ‘purge the negative’ out of our lives. Let’s quickly unpack ‘why’ these situations could have a negative impact on our lives.
If we are hanging around friends that have or did something illegal, we could get arrested right along with them, even if we didn’t do anything. We could get roped into trying extreme drugs through ‘peer pressure.’ Maybe we start to see drugs and illegal activities as a norm that makes us more likely to do them in the future.
What about if we grew up in a negative, hateful family? What is the ‘influence’ of consistently hearing negative, hateful things? The fear is that we start to take on those same traits, that we start to become what we observe consistently. Like an echo chamber, we are only hearing and seeing things that support the negative, hateful things.
Adjusting to the Team
In some ways, with respect to all of our interactions, we are always naturally adjusting to reduce and eliminate conflict, to make our interactions easier and more fruitful, or to achieve certain goals. Our ‘team’ is the ‘five people’ or our friends and families. Since we are around them the most, it makes sense that we are going to adjust to their actions, their styles of communication, and their beliefs.
Even if we have strong beliefs, our thoughts are often slowly molded by the things in our immediate environment. It is clear, however, that doesn’t have to be the case; we just have to be very deliberate. Can we have close friends or family that don’t share our political beliefs? That don’t share our religious beliefs? That don’t share our goals? That don’t make the same money?
Of course, we’d say yes to all of the above; we can have close friends and family that don’t believe or do the same things we do. We just have to make sure we draw a line in the sand and firmly establish what we want and believe, and more importantly, protect it accordingly.
That line in the sand is our boundaries. It’s protecting what we are or are not willing to do and believe. Boundaries protect our goals, ensuring that we take actions in accordance with our own goals and beliefs instead of others. When we are dealing with others, having strong boundaries allows us to navigate without being negatively influenced.
If, for example, we were against our friends doing extreme drugs or stealing and causing mischief, then we should have a boundary that doesn’t let us or them cross it. If we are friends and don’t approve, are we telling them how stupid it is? Are we making sure they don’t do anything like that while we’re around? Are we making sure they have nothing illegal on them when we hang out? Of course, if we started doing that, there’s a good chance at least a few of the friends would stop coming around because of our nagging rules.
In the case of our hateful family, we’d establish a boundary about not hating or being negative the way they do. We’d learn to put ourselves in a physical or mental space to ensure we understand deeply how to never get to that level of hate and negativity.
Wanting It Bad Enough
Boundaries are not only important for extreme situations but for everyday relationships and ourselves. If we have important beliefs or things we want to do, we have to establish a boundary around them. Without boundaries, those in our lives, those we work with, and even ourselves have no idea what is or isn’t a priority.
Take a simple example of working out. If working out is very important to us, then we’d need to establish a boundary relating to working out. It means that nothing is going to keep us from doing that to a reasonable extent. If it’s our time to work out and a friend wants to hang out, with boundaries protecting our work out goals, we’d tell them we can go afterward or another day.
If we don’t protect our goals, we’ll find achieving them to be difficult. This is often a silent killer making us or others think ‘we don’t want it bad enough,’ yet, in reality, we just need to be smarter about establishing these boundaries.
Not all boundaries are good, however. They can cause a lot of arguments and issues as well. If it’s a simple case of a missed happy hour, maybe that’s ok; but what if we miss our anniversary because of our boundary of nothing impacting our workout schedule? What if we miss out on our child growing up because of some other boundary around our obsession?
The ‘obsessed’ entrepreneur, the ‘closed-off’ partner, the ‘hard-headed’ child – in some ways, these individuals are all simply establishing boundaries to protect things that they find important. Maybe they were forced to assert themselves because of a bad environment they grew up in, or maybe they have lofty goals.
When establishing boundaries, maybe they are too extreme or too subtle; we should be constantly re-assessing and updating them as we interact. Every social interaction includes navigating boundaries, and as such, when we encounter conflicts, we should take that as a time to re-assess and ensure our boundaries are appropriate.
Conflict and Assessing Boundaries
One of the easiest ways to assess our boundaries is when we argue or have conflict in a social interaction. Imagine that we are arguing over “something little,” and we find that we are starting to get emotional. We want to avoid an uncontrollable argument, so we decide to stop and walk away. Yet the person we are walking away from is also starting to get upset because we are walking away. In that instance, we should ask ourselves a few questions:
1. Whose boundary is it? If we ‘walk away’ when an argument starts to get heated, clearly, it’s our boundary, right? They are encroaching on “our” space. Well, not necessarily. All interactions involve everyone’s boundaries, which means that even though we are walking away, the person we are walking away from has their own boundaries that could be telling them they shouldn’t be letting this go. Understanding both boundaries to an extent will help us to learn:
2. What is the boundary protecting? In the argument scenario, we are walking away to protect ourselves from getting overemotional and starting an uncontrollable argument. Yet we have to also try to understand the boundary of the person we are interacting with. What is it they are trying to protect by not letting go? We won’t know the answer for sure, but we can at least acknowledge that it is important to them. Ideally, we find out by asking them why or what their issue is. That then can lead us to our final question:
3. Is there a better way? Once we have an idea of whose boundary is protecting what, we can start to understand if we can or should change our own boundary to accommodate. For instance, if our rule is to just walk away, and we find out our significant other needs to know we care about the issue, we can change our rule to always tell them before we walk away. We could ensure that we tell them we care, and we’d be open to discussing it after we calm down at a particular date and time.
Acknowledge the Consequences
Sometimes, after assessing our boundaries, we decide we don’t want to change anything, and that is perfectly fine; we just have to acknowledge the consequences. If we never go out with our friend because of our crazy workout schedule, we may lose a friend if they don’t adapt. If we don’t want to adapt certain boundaries for people in our lives, we may lose them in some way.
Losing favor with others is often the result of boundaries, which is why it is important to use them wisely and constantly re-assess. We may end up surrounded by similar people. We may end up the ‘average of the five people we spend the most time with,’ but it’s not the reason we are where we are; it’s only a correlation and a pretty meaningless one at that. The reason we are where we are is the result of our established boundaries and the work we’ve put in.
P.S. The dynamic of losing friends and family members is difficult to accept and acknowledge and can cause us to become afraid to establish boundaries at all. But we should never be afraid to establish boundaries to protect what is important to us. If we don’t, we will lose much more than the favor of our friends and our family; we will lose ourselves.