The quote “You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with” is one of the most referenced in the world of personal and professional development. And while this concept seems to encourage you to upgrade your relationships if you want to grow, few people ever do, because of a simple secret hiding in the folds of this simple idea.
The Two Kinds of People in Your Life and Why You’re Stuck with Them
If you’re like most people you have two kinds of people in your life:
The Mentors: These are the people you look up to and admire, all while secretly projecting onto them all the greatness you want but won’t allow yourself to admit you’re capable of. You ignore their flaws and maintain their place on the pedestal, all so you can avoid seeing the possibility of greatness in yourself and instead hope that they will simply bestow that greatness upon you.
The Colleagues: These people you see as either comfortably ahead, behind, or parallel with you. They may be more successful in some areas than you are, but you’re great at finding the flaws in them so you can balance out the difference in status or success you find.
“Sure they make a lot of money,” you say, “but look how stressed out and messy they’re relationships are.” These are the people in your life you create the bonds of belonging with and stay in relationship with on terms that give you a sense of safety.
Most of us spend our lives hanging with the colleagues and admiring the mentors. Sometimes when you’re “lucky” your mentors become your friends, but it’s pretty rare. And even if they do, you’ll simply find a new equilibrium and recreate the same pattern again.
The Top Five People Paradox
This is why the Top Five People quote creates a sort of paradox. Because while you can upgrade your friends, having friends that violate the boundaries of these two groups forces you to live in a state of near-constant tension.
Instead of feeling safe, secure, and equal to your friends, your friends end up feeling more like frenemies.
This happened recently with a friend of mine, when he started stepping up his business game. Before this, I had charged more than he did, enrolled more clients than he did, and wrote more often.
Then, all of a sudden, he was all over Facebook with his annoyingly brilliant wit, and on our calls he was telling me all about how many sales calls he was having. And before I knew it, I felt uncomfortable.
I went from knowing that I was equal to or better than him (a thought I wasn’t totally conscious of at the time) to worrying that he might surpass me and threaten everything I had worked so hard to feel good about.
The easy thing would’ve been to either discount his success or resent and judge him for it. And then subtly move away from our friendship. This is what most of us do and why if you’ve ever found some sudden success in life you soon discover some of your friends seem to drop away.
Living in this tension is really hard and so we avoid it. This is why we spend time with people who challenge us in a way that feels comfortable. Or with people who don’t challenge us at all. This is one of the reasons people hire coaches, because being in this tension by choice and permission is one of the hardest things for us to do.
AND if you want to have relationships that are truly, truly transformative — the kind of relationships the Top Five People quote encourage you to have — you must make a choice.
You can either choose to share your successes and feel the discomfort of those around you. Or choose to downplay what you’ve done so that no one feels threatened.
You can either choose to learn to be with others as they succeed and feel what the Buddhists call “sympathetic joy.” Or choose to cut your friends down, or move away from friends you perceive are doing better than you.
Most people choose to stay with the five people that make them the most comfortable. Some people choose to subtly upgrade their friends over time without ever really changing this pattern. And some people, a very few, learn to live in the tension that demands their being expand, rather than hope it’s their network that will change.
And as with most things, what you choose to practice is entirely up to you.