Upgrade your peer group to shortcut your personal growth

A billionaire into ping pong, an aspiring rockstar, a bottle washer who sleeps on the floor, and a University professor who likes rap walk into a restaurant…

It sounds like the beginning of a (bad) joke.

Have you ever noticed how people tend to hang out with other people from the same background and walk of life?

Sure, you may think. Similar people tend to go to similar schools, have similar occupations, and come from similar backgrounds. Actually, you can argue the opposite: people that go to similar schools, have similar occupations, and come from similar backgrounds tend to become similar people.

Surely in the age of aeroplanes, social media profiles, and cities, it should be easier than ever to mingle and expose yourself to a diverse group of people.

Or is there something getting in the way?

You’re either in or you’re dead

As individuals, we’re highly dependent on the group.
Imagine yourself stranded on a desert island with nothing to eat and no one else to talk about. Chances are, you wouldn’t survive very long. You’ll either go cuckoo or be eaten by a much better predator.

peer pressure

Luckily, modern humans don’t have to worry about that. But we’re still dependent on other people: the architect who planned the building you live in, the hairdresser that gives you an extra dash self-confidence, the teacher looking after your children, the postman delivering your Amazon parcels, and many more: the list is long.
The difference is that we don’t know any of these people. In the past, it was all taken care by your tribe.

When survival is at stake, any tribe cannot allow for too much diversity, as it would increase complexity and lower trust. If you didn’t fit in with the group, you were very likely traded out (just like in high school).

If you’re out, you don’t survive. So the only ones that got to pass their genes down to us were…well, the ones that were great at conforming to the rest of the tribe.

It’s been our specialty for generations.

Wired for peer pressure?

Conforming to the people around you is a phenomenon called Social Adaptation, “the adjustment of individual and group behavior to conform with the prevailing system of norms and values in a given society, class, or social group.”

peer group

We are wired to match our peer group: the brain regulates and stimulates adaptation using a hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain, lifting your mood, lowering fear and anxiety, and promoting trust and social behaviour. Whenever you engage in social or intimate relationships, you get a feel-good spike of oxytocin to reward you and spur your friendliness.
Oxytocin has a role in long-lasting relationships, and is also released in great quantities at birth, regulating mother-child bonding.

But there’s more.

Studies have shows that Oxytocin makes it easier to empathise with people you identify as similar to you, or part of your social group, and discriminate against other groups.
In a 2013 study, participants were shown images of people from different racial backgrounds expressing pain or showing a neutral expression. The study group was administered oxytocin or a control placebo, and their brain activity was scanned. Those that were given oxytocin showed higher levels of empathy towards pain, but only towards in-group members.
Another study on empathy showed similar results for non-racial related labels, with the areas of the brain associated with pain showing a larger empathic response for people that were seen as part of one’s own group.

Not only we are wired to socially adapt: both our psychology and our biology have evolved for us to conform to our peer group. This means that the people that surround you shape your personality, your beliefs, your ambitions, and your future. As one of my favourite quotes says, “Show me your friends and I’ll show you your future.”

Hang around five smokers, and you’ll be the sixth.
Hang around five fitness freaks, and you’ll be the sixth.

You are who you hang around with.

How to upgrade your peer group

We often believe we are this uber-rational being. That we can fence off external and internal inputs.
In the meantime, we choose to ignore the invisible forces that govern our day, instead of harnessing them to work for us.

The people you surround yourself with determine what kind of ideas, what kind of goals, what kind of life you get exposed to. It also determines your ambition.
So choose your peer group not depending on your past or your present, but thinking about the future.
Thinking about where you want to be. This is the greatest shortcut to your personal development.

Once you do this it’s going to be a lot easier to come across the information, the path, the mindset, and even the hunger that you need to get wherever you want to get.

Here a few ways to pick your tribe.

1. Expose yourself to great ideas and examples

A great way to upgrade your thinking is to select what kind of information you are feeding your mind.
Books, blogs, podcasts, youtube channels, audiobooks, and documentaries are all great ways to soak in the kind of mindset you want to get closer to. They can show you that there are other people with similar (or even bigger) ambitions, and allow you to peek into the thought process of someone who’s several steps ahead of you.
This kind of access to great ideas and inspiration is unparalleled in the history of time. Don’t waste your privilege.
Just make sure that you’re not using “more information” as an excuse not to take action.

2. Multiply positive relationships

Maybe you’re starting from zero, or maybe you just want to meet more interesting people to inspire you.

Either way, there’s only one solution: talk to people.
Where do the kind of people that already are where you want to be in life currently hang?
Maybe it’s an event, maybe it’s an office space. Maybe it’s a coffee shop. Maybe it’s an activity.
Make it a habit to go there and have conversations. Ask for introductions. And then invite them for a chat over coffee. If they say no, onwards. Don’t ask for favours, just have a normal conversation: you’re peers, remember?

Twitter advanced search can be another great way to meet inspiring people in your area, but the danger of it being creepy are pretty high so…just join in a thread and add to it without a hidden agenda, then take it from there.

The absolute best way to meet people that motivate you and push you out of your comfort zone is by asking for an introduction. Of course, you’ll need at least one positive relationship to start, but don’t underestimate this.
I like to organise second degree dinners 2-3 times a year, in which me and another host introduce likeminded people to each other. It’s so much fun and everyone’s a winner, so you don’t even need to know the host that well.
Here’s how it works.

3. Find a mentor or a coach

Having someone to show you a clear path is important when there’s so much information available, it’s easy to do a bit of everything and…end up not doing anything.

Mentoring and coaching are two different things: a mentor tells you what to do their way, whereas a coach gives you the tools you need right now, and then extracts the action plan from you using questions and empathy.
Personally, I’m a big believer in Socratic questioning and just-in-time information (over just-in-case).

There’s a lot of value in both. I just don’t think it possible to have one mentor alone, as their way and their journey will not fit your own. The good news is, you don’t have to. You can pick and choose as many virtual mentors as you like for each area of your life. Understand what makes them successful in your eyes, study their behaviour, follow their suggestions, and then model what worked for them.
Just stick to the same person, and don’t keep bouncing on to the next clickbait. Consistency is key.

4. Take the rubbish out

Ok, now. You can’t just keep adding to what you already do. 24 hours, remember?
Books, blogs, and meaningful relationships take time so make sure you get rid of negative influences first.

First, detox from paralysing and useless information, including gossiping, the news, and anything you consume just because you have to keep up with what most people talk about. Make sure it matches where you want to be, not where you are now.

Next, detox from the people that bring you down. Look at your latest messages and make a list of the 5-10 people you spend the most time with. How many of them push you to do better? How many keep you stuck in your comfort zone?
Get rid of the latter. It’s not mean. It’s just being able to recognise that we’re all on a different journey, and when paths diverge is better for everyone to go separate ways instead of being stuck.
Sometimes it will be your family or work that bring you down. Tough. Find a way to minimise their influence and create a plan to change your situation. Either that, or you’ll stay where you are.

peer group decisions

Selecting the people around you isn’t easy: we all come with a social baggage that was imposed on us before we could even utter our first word. And yet, it’s important to surround yourself with people that will keep you to a high standard, and that are part of your future journey, not the past.

If you wanted to become a better tennis player, you wouldn’t train with beginners (nor people who aren’t into tennis).

The same principle applies to every day life. Find people that keep you growing.

Your turn now: make a list of the 6 people you spend the most time with. Who lifts you up? Who drains you? Who’s missing from the list? You know what to do.

— Matt