Joe Choi's Stories and Advice on Writing, Health, and Living a Happier Life

Don't sign up. Read my posts first. If you like them, then sign up.

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required

This Popular Piece of Advice Pisses Me Off

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”

I see this quote all the time in my Facebook feed and just about every other article on general success in the blogosphere. People seem to take it as the gospel.

The only problem is it’s not true.

Jim Rohn said it. I don’t know much about him other than that he was an author and motivational speaker. But these words of wisdom are nothing more than a slogan designed to make people think that any bad circumstance is not their fault.

Not happy with your life?

It’s not your fault! It’s your friends and family. Ditch those suckers and you’ll be successful!

What does Rohn mean by “average”? Average height? Average income? Average looks?

I’m guessing he means you are the average success of the people around you. The problem with this is that everyone has a different definition of success. Some people want to build a multimillion-dollar company, some want a promotion, others want to raise to a family.

If you define success as income, some industries and professions will be more lucrative than others by nature. A doctor makes more than a customer service manager. A customer service manager can’t make more—because the market doesn’t allow it—just by hanging around a bunch of doctors.

The customer service manager could become a doctor and hanging around doctors would help in that regard, but the ability to get through medical school will matter more than just hanging around doctors.

If he means you’ll attain comparable skill level as the people around you, that’s also not true.

One of the hockey teams I played on growing up had a player that went on to play professionally. I attended summer camps with people who also went pro.

These players were head and shoulders above everyone else. In drills they would blow everyone else out of the water. This was because of raw talent—not because of the people they spent the most time around, which was players like me.

Tiger Woods was not the average of the golfers he played against growing up or in his prime. He was well above average compared to them. Now, people like this may elevate the level of competition in a way, but it’s not because of some silly law of averages. Raw talent is the biggest factor.

Nelson Mandela spent five years in prison. Did he become the average of five people he spent the most time with during those years? I think not.

You can’t leech onto other people.

Rohn is basically saying to ditch loser friends and start hanging around more successful people.

The problem with this is that if you’re a “nobody,” more “successful” people won’t want to hang out with you until you reach a certain level in whatever you’re trying to do.

 This also goes along with another piece of advice around there that floats around to “hire people smarter than you.” 

By this logic, every CEO or company founder would be the dumbest person in the company. Sergey Brin and Larry Page were both PhD students at Stanford. Although they never finished, they’re probably among the smartest people out there. If they tried hiring people smarter than them, they wouldn’t have a large pool of candidates to choose from.

I could not just approach Sergey or Larry and just start hanging around them to acquire success through osmosis. I’d need to do something pretty incredible—like build the next Facebook—to even get on their radar.

No study ever done to prove 5 is the magic number.

To my knowledge no control study has ever been done to prove that you become the average—whatever that means—of the 5 people you spend the most time with.

By mentioning a specific number Rohn is implying it has been proven that five is the magic number. You only become the average of 5 people you hang closely with—not 4, 6, 10, 28, 2, etc.

And, 5 is too small of a sample size anyway. I thought the number 30 was considered a large sample size in statistics. It’s what I was taught and what my textbooks had in school.

After looking into it more I found some books have 30, and others have 20 or 50. It turns out all these are arbitrary numbers. Why they made them up and put them in textbooks? I have no idea.

The important thing is that you have an adequate sample size to see if a population is normally distributed or skewed. 5 is not an adequate sample size.

If I ever gave you a statistic that I calculated on a sample size of 5, you’d scoff at it.

A principal can’t report to the state that his school had the best SAT scores after calculating it from the 5 highest scores.

But somehow in the context of human success the average of five is accurate? Hogwash!

“Sorry buddy, can’t help you…”

Imagine a good friend came up to you. He lost his job, has been hitting the bottle pretty hard, and comes to you for help.

What would you say to him?

“Sorry buddy, can’t help you…I can’t include you in my five person inner circle because you’ll bring me down.”

Sounds cold-hearted and even insulting.

Or maybe the said friend in need is coming to you because he heard you become the average of five people you spend most time with after going on a self-help binge. And he wants to include YOU in his five-person average.

“Whatever…It got me to wake up and think about life and people I associate with.”

If you point out inaccuracies in self-help literature, people like to say, “Whatever, it woke me up and got me to think about life.”

That doesn’t cut it. Something actually woke you up BEFORE you read the book, or clicked on the success article. If you had no interest in it, or didn’t need it, you would not have read it.

After your wake up call, it’s your job to examine the information and find the truth. Yes, you’ll waste some money and time finding the truth. I’ve certainly waded through my fair share of bullshit to find what I believe to be the best advice out there.

I suspect people don’t like admitting they’ve wasted money on something, or that they were duped. Back in college, I went to Vegas to be a photographer at an event for a company I was working for part-time. I rode along in a bus with about 100 other people.

After the weekend was over and people were boarding the bus I made small talk with everyone. “Did you win anything?” I’d ask.

“I broke even,” was the most common reply. 

When I walked around the hotel lobbies in my free time, they were also filled with people who broke even.

But if everyone breaks even, how do the casinos stay in business?

I’m guessing Rohn’s law of average was a way of getting off the hook if his book or seminars didn’t work for people.

We don’t know what Rohn meant by average. But let’s say he meant income in this example.

If a guy making $15,000 a year ditches his “loser friends” and starts hanging out with five people who make $150,000 a year each. 

The average income of the group becomes $127,500 a year. It’s technically true that the “loser guy” became the average of the five guys he started hanging with.

Forget the fact that he hasn’t developed any skills or creative thinking ability to earn more. On paper, as a statistic, he looks better.

How did I get worse at yoga? 

When I moved down to Florida, I started practicing yoga at a nearby studio. I’d reckon people at the new studio were more advanced than the people who went to my old one in New Jersey.

So did I get better because I started practicing with more advanced people? 

No. I got worse. I feel tighter and struggle through some basic poses. The reason is simply because I don’t go as much. I attend once or twice a week whereas in NJ I was going three or four times a week.

Working at something! What a novel concept. It’s simple, but not easy.

Making an effort to replace the people you spend time with seems like a distraction from whatever your main goal is.

You are what you do everyday is more accurate than being the average of five people you spend time with.

10 Things I Learned From Writing 100 Blog Posts

Ugh. I cringe looking back at myself every six months. Six months ago, I was getting ready to move to Florida. I can’t believe how much time I spent looking for move-in deals where I’d save $100 or $200 bucks up front. Over the course of a year’s lease, that much money is a dropContinue Reading

How to Manage Your Expectations – The Rule of Thirds

“Wait…the toilet doesn’t flush?” John (name changed) asked me. “Well, I only get running water at certain times of the day so it’s not working right now,” I told him. But it was too late. He already took a crap and it was festering in the toilet bowl. I was hosting a Cinco de MayoContinue Reading