6 min read

You Are Not Who You Surround Yourself With

The notion that you are who you surround yourself with has always bothered me. Whenever I spend time with people who others might say are a “positive influence”, they drive me up the wall because they’re all bozos too, just in a way that I don’t like as much.

The Mundanity of Excellence: An Ethnographic Report on Stratification and Olympic Swimmers is a 1989 paper by Daniel Chambliss who spent over a year observing swimmers at all levels of competition (you can read it on Fermat’s Library here). It included observations of Olympic qualifiers all the way down to casual summer leagues for kids and teens.

His main observation is that the differences between these leagues is not as much quantitative as it is qualitative. I.e. it is less about the quantity of swimming, but the approach taken (emphasis mine).

“I am suggesting here that athletes do not reach the top level by a simple process of ‘working their way up,’ by accumulating sheer time in the sport; improvements across levels of the sport are not generated through quantitative changes. No amount of extra work per se will transform a ‘C’ swimmer into a ‘AAAA’ swimmer without a concurrent qualitative change in how that work is done. It is not by doing increasing amounts of work that one becomes excellent, but rather by changing the kinds of work. Beyond an initial improvement of strength, flexibility and feel, there is little increasing accumulation of speed through sheer volume of swimming. Instead, athletes move up to the top ranks through qualitative jumps: noticeable changes in their techniques, discipline,  and attitude, accomplished usually through a change in settings, e.g. joining a new team with a new coach, new friends, etc, who work at a higher level. Without such qualitative jumps, no major improvements (movements through levels) will take place.”

This is somewhat unintuitive, but is relatively easy to accept. However, the reason why Chambliss thinks this happens is more interesting (emphasis again mine):

“I have spoken of the ‘top’ of the sport, and ‘levels’ within the sport. But these words suggest that all swimmers are, so to speak, climbing a single ladder, aiming towards the same goals, sharing the same values, swimming the same strokes, all looking upwards towards an Olympic gold medal. But they aren’t. Some want gold medals, some want to make the Team, some want to exercise, or have fun with friends, or be out in the sunshine and water. Some are trying to escape their parents. The images of the ‘top’ and the ‘levels’ of swimming which I have used until now may simply reflect the dominance of a certain faction of swimmers and coaches in the sport: top is what they regard as the top, and their definitions of success have the broadest political currency in United States Swimming. Fast swimmers take as given that faster is better—instead of, say, that more beautiful is better; or that parental involvement is better; or that ‘well-rounded’ children (whatever that may mean) are better. The very terminology of ‘top’ and ‘level’ then, reifies the current ranking system.
“Such reification is not only analytically suspect, it is also empirically incorrect. Most swimmers don’t want to win an Olympic gold medal. Some may have, at most, a vague, un-acted upon desire to go someday to the National Championships. Of course, if an adult asks what a child wants to accomplish in swimming, the child may say ‘I want to win the Olympics,’ but this is more to impress or please the adults than really to announce the child’s own intentions. When younger athletes talk about such goals, they are sharing fantasies, not announcing plans; and fantasies are more often enjoyed in their unreality than in their fulfillment.

That last paragraph is fascinating because it applies to all endeavors. Uncertainty of desire is a human constant. When people share “goals” they are often just repeating the script that their social group has established as “correct”. I would tweak the final sentence in that paragraph to say: “fantasies are more often enjoyed in their sense of social belonging than in their fulfillment.”

This of course brings us back to the idea that you are the people you surround yourself with. It’s not that you become them, it’s that your social reality is defined by them. And if you want to accomplish something, you need to ensure that your social reality aligns with those goals.

Jonathan Blow describes the same idea in a Hacker News comment:

“As you become successful in your field (or wherever), and further internalize the habits that are necessary to be successful, it’s clear that many of these things are easy to do, it’s just that people don’t want to do them.
“In other words … it’s obvious that many people don’t want to be successful, and if they were to introspect deeply, they would see this clearly. In fact what they want is to be somewhere comfortable in the middle of the herd, not having to do too much work.
“Most people want to be comfortable, not ‘successful’ in a way that requires ambition. But many people are brainwashed enough by the rhetoric of success that they don’t realize it’s not what they want.
“There’s also something I haven’t figured out yet. Every time I give advice, I get a number of responses from people with self-defeating attitudes, explaining how this advice can’t possibly apply to them because blah blah blah. These people build up belief structures that are obviously intended to keep them mired in their current situation, smelling of low self-esteem and defeatism. “Obviously” it’s better not to be stuck in these belief structures, yet people will defend them vigorously, and in some cases fiercely. I don’t yet fully understand why, except maybe that if someone believes there is a solution to their problem, then it must be their fault that they haven’t solved it, and/or that there will be a clear failure that is their fault if they attempt to solve it.”

Or as Chambliss says it:

“I am suggesting that athletic excellence is widely attainable, if usually unsought.”

As I’ve talked about before, figuring out what you want is one of the hardest things in life. And maybe the most important.

The stopgap for figuring out what you want is to just offload the work onto your social group: just want whatever your friends, family, and peers want. This is fine, until your actual desires or perceived desires come in conflict with the values of your social group. As Chambliss observed:

“athletes who are much faster than the others may be discouraged by social pressure even from competing, for they take the fun out of it.
“These fast swimmers who come to slow meets are called hot dogs, showoffs, or even jerks. (Personal observations)”

If your goal is to become an olympic swimmer, becoming “the jerk” in a for-fun swim league will not feel good. And on the flip side, if your goal is to have fun swimming, being the bottom of the barrel on a nationally competitive swim team will not be fun either.

In this sense, how your actions and desires will be judged is determined by who you surround yourself with. However, this judgement does not necessarily lead to action. The community you build for yourself just determines whether you’ll be derided as a try-hard/slacker (depending which way the mismatch goes), or celebrated as a member of a group.

Surrounding yourself with people who run their own businesses will not make you start your own business. It will make you think about starting your own business. But if that is not really what you want to do it will make you miserable, because you’re setting yourself up to fail eternally. You’ll be beating yourself up over not hitting a mark that, if you were honest with yourself, you are completely uninterested in hitting.

My struggle with the “you are who you surround yourself” expression that people throw around is that it has a tinge of judgement to it. There are no better people “out there”. Humans are all relatively equally flawed. Who you surround yourself with just determines your norms. Whether you want to swim for fun, or genuinely shoot for a gold medal, one is not better than the other. As Chambliss puts it, the definitions of “success” are the “definitions of success [that] have the broadest political currency.”

Furthermore, throwing yourself into a social group for the transactional gains of their social norms is a short term strategy. It’s a kind of over-engineering bred by a culture where the main reason a lot of people do anything while growing up is “for college applications”. Over the short-term you may get somewhere you think you want to go, but in the end I suspect it’ll feel empty.

So, yes, if you genuinely feel a mismatch in what you’re interested in doing with the social norms of those around you, maybe that is a problem. But, I think it’s also often an easy scapegoat that leads to thinking like “if only I surrounded myself with the right people all my dreams will come true.” You start to expect that people attempting to reach similar goals would be some kind of other breed of human. You hope that they’ll pull you into some higher plane of existence where work and meaning becomes easy. That no one will make mistakes, and everything will feel True. But in the end I think you’ll find the same thing Chambliss found: excellence always lives in the mundane.