If you painted as a kid, you may remember the first time you dipped your paintbrush full of colour into clean water. As soon as the tip of the brush touched the surface of the water, the colour would disperse into beautiful, uncontrolled patterns. Just like the colour in the water, the way our decisions impact each other’s lives results in outcomes that we may have no control over. What we do have control over is choosing the people around us who are influencing those outcomes. This blog suggests a thought for consideration and maybe even for action: those we choose to surround ourselves with will impact our lives in unforeseen ways.
Harvard professor in social psychology, Dr. David McClelland, concluded after a 25-yearlong study on the characteristics of achievement-motivated people that their “reference group” (those we use as a point of comparison to form our values and beliefs) is the single most important factor in success. His study showed evidence that “the people you habitually associate with determine as much as 95 percent of your success or failure in life.” Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger’s friendship is just one example of the potential value of those we surround ourselves with.
Warren Buffet, at the beginning of his investing career, made his first million dollars by using an approach called “Cigar Butt” investing. The strategy revolved around buying a dying business while expecting an eventual, but final, uplift in the fortunes of the business, presenting the chance to sell it at a profit. After that, the business would usually die out, just like a cigar after the last puff. Fortunately for Buffet, he didn’t apply the same strategy to the friends he decided to invest in. He openly admits that his early strategy was foolish. As you’ve likely guessed, the one to change his mind was his best friend, Charlie Munger. Munger’s approach of buying good companies with good management at a fair price and raising them up towards even greater success is used by Buffet and his $680B company today.
If the investment world doesn’t resonate with you, there are many other examples of how people impact our lives. Think of how a janitor’s relationship with his psychologist changed his life forever in the movie “Good Will Hunting”. Or think of what Shrek would have done without his best friend, Donkey. So how can we make sure that the people around us – the ones impacting 95 percent of our future decisions – are leading us toward success and not into failure?
At the risk of oversimplifying the complex ins and outs of social connection, surrounding ourselves with the best people must satisfy two categories: internal and external.
When asked by an 11-year-old how people can have long-lasting friendships like theirs, Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger advised that we should first look within ourselves. Once we become the person we want to have around, people of the same kind will start surrounding us. If you currently find yourself surrounded by people you don’t connect with, the first step – a difficult step – may be to look inside. Without introspection, you might simply be going very fast in the wrong direction.
Then, look outside. As writer and motivational speaker Simon Sinek puts it, “We’re not good at everything and we’re not good by ourselves. The goal is to amplify your strength and surround yourself with people who can do what you can’t do.” Even more, don’t be afraid of healthy disagreements or respectful debates – accepting to be challenged, letting go of old ways of doing things, and learning to welcome different perspectives are all part of personal growth. Finally, it’s worth noting that you may not find these people next door, so don’t be afraid to explore! My father-in-law finds meaningful discussions at the library, my husband embraces new ways to think at tech tradeshows, and I’m trying my luck with an Executive MBA at Frankfurt School of Finance & Management. Too introverted for real, alive humans? Books and biographies aren’t a bad path either.
Finding the right people to surround ourselves with is an art that we are all invited to participate in. As writer Gregory David Roberts wrote in his famous book, Shantaram, “every human heartbeat is a universe of possibilities.” So, let’s start, fresh if we have to, take the beautiful colours we’ve surrounded ourselves with, and paint a picture. Let’s be intentional this time. Let’s paint a legacy.