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You Are the Average of Your Five Closest Friends (bufr.tumblr.com)
198 points by buf on Oct 30, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 92 comments

"Bottom line: If the main topic of conversation you have with your friends is not how you can better yourself, you need to get new friends."

Thanks, but I'm happy with the friends I have and with the kind of conversations we have. If your friends love talking about "how you can better yourself," then fair enough -- whatever works for you. On the other hand, if your friends love talking about the things they do, interesting things they've learned, neat ideas, activities, etc. then don't ditch them just because they're not talking about "how you can better yourself." You'll "better yourself" by being immersed in a social environment of new ideas and options and acting on the things you learn, not by dumping your friends and finding people who want to talk about self-improvement.

But doesn't this hinge on the definition of 'bettering yourself'.

To me, your comment isn't mutually exclusive with the original.

People discussing things they've learned, ideas and activities who, by my definition, are bettering themselves. You might like your friends, then probably, your friends are bettering themselves, and so are you. You mightn't realise this, but spend some time with people who have a social circle where complaining and moaning and hating the world are pre-requisites for membership, and you'd probably realise how good your current friends are.

I don't take 'better yourself' line to mean climbing a career/social/income ladder, or obsessively reading Dr Phil type books, to me it just means improving yourself continuously.

If you flip it over and get: "if you find your friends talking themselves down and complaining all the time, you need to get new friends"

I don't think too many of us would argue with that.

While the thought of dropping friends might seem harsh to some, you are definitely the product of your relationships and the thinking that goes along with them. Your life is also a product of the opportunities that come along, and having the wrong surroundings will produce the wrong opportunities.

You can do a lot worse with your time than make a new friend with someone who is positive and likes to continually learn. There's a lot of people out there who could use that advice.

If you broaden the definition of "better yourself" to enough to include all constructive human conversation, then maybe you could read this statement as a truth. But if you read it as plain English it's obvious that's not what he's talking about. He's talking about a very specific sort of conversation around improving one's career and skills.

From the article:

> Today, Jane doesn’t know what the celebrity gossip is.

I venture to suggest that it actually refers to the former one you mentioned, which, being constructive, leads to the latter one in various occasions (but not exclusively).

That sentence stuck out at me also. "Bottom line:..." It came off too patronizing. I mean, why does the main topic of conversation have to be about self-improvement? I think sometimes it's beneficial to have a discussion about arbitrary topics that have no correlation with your everyday life.

About the discussing celebrities issue. I myself have no qualms about it. For me a typical conversation could go as follows: "celebrity_x just created this new application_y and is trying to change industry_Z..." Then we would continue discussing ideas about a web application we could build.

Honestly, sometimes just talking about someone that recently created a new application motivates me to code.

Somewhat misleading headline I think given the content of the article but still a valid point. My question to you folks out there is this: I came across this statement sometime back and realized I need to change my friends if I am to better my situation. My friends, while good people, are not goal oriented and have for all intents and purposes given up. The people who I'd like to hang out with and who can help me grow reject me most of the time (they perhaps intuitively have internalized this wisdom and don't want me contributing to their average since they are at a better place than me currently). What are some practical ways to upgrade your friends especially if you are highly introverted?

I think you may want to take a close look at your actual desires and see if you really want to become goal-oriented. Our friends are usually a reflection of ourselves; if you're constantly not fitting in with goal-oriented people, perhaps that's a sign that you don't really want to be a goal-oriented person yourself.

I spent a few years after college thinking I would work really hard and found a famous startup and get rich. I did work really hard and found a startup, but it made me neither rich nor famous. But it did get me into Google, where I met lots of goal-oriented type-A people (the application process seems to select for that), and earned their professional respect and they earned mine. However, something always felt "off" when I tried hanging out socially with the more focused, hard-working folks, like I didn't really identify with them. And I was a lot less happy when working flat-out towards a goal than when poking my head into lots of corners.

I've come to realize lately that I'm not goal-oriented, and in fact don't give a shit about goals. Instead, I'm discovery-oriented: I like to understand how the world around me works, and maybe poke it a bit and see what happens. And most of my closest friends reflect that back to me.

There is unfortunately a mythology around startup founders that says they must be hyper-focused goal-oriented people. And it's true in a lot of cases: Bill Gates, Larry Page, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Larry Ellison, they all knew pretty much what they wanted to achieve and then focused on that until it came true. But there're good examples of discovery-oriented startup founders as well: Evan Williams, Paul Buchheit, Pierre Omidyar, Steve Wozniak, Sergey Brin. They usually end up taking a much more meandering path toward greatness (or partnering with a goal-oriented person), but they still get there.

Work with what you've got and figure out a path that harmonizes with that, rather than trying to change yourself. Trying to be someone you're not just doesn't work.

Just like anything else in life, you have to do this step-by-step.

First, don't sell yourself short. You have some valuable attributes and characteristics that others will find valuable. You find a friend or group of friends who are a notch or two closer to where you want to be, people that have something valuable to give you and to whom you can give something back.

You slowly replace your friends with "better" ones that will bring you closer to your goals and will make you more of who you want to be, and you climb that ladder to the top. It'll take time, but it's also a far more guaranteed outcome versus suddenly jumping into a circle you don't yet belong in, where even if they'll accept you, chances are you'll change your mind and back out.

"You slowly replace your friends with "better" ones"..."will make you more of who you want to be"

I believe the talented Mr Ripley used this strategy to good effect. There's a saying about never trust anyone who doesn't have at least one friend left from childhood.

Not sure what the point of the childhood friend thing is.

I was a very very awkward youth (I didn't speak English well and I was one of few Indian students at my school) so I had a lot of trouble making friends. I don't have many friends from my childhood because I wasn't very good at it, I didn't really establish lasting friendships until High School and College.

High school counts as childhood, and more to the point, childhood friends are an indication that a person is not a disloyal back stabber and is someone others value. It's social proof.

it's just a saying though and is useless past its intended meaning. It does't seem to apply to you.

I would say HS counts as childhood.

This saying is hard to google for, and quite intersting. Do you have a cite handy?

Maybe these will seem obvious, but maybe one of them will stick:

- Go to meetups, get there early for the networking/pizza stuff that happens before the main talk, stay after and see if people go out for drinks

- If you have a few people you know that might be a good fit, set up a mastermind group; I haven't done this myself but it seems like a low pressure way to get people together and build off the positive peer pressure

I've been in technology for 15 years. In that time I went from QA to networking/IT to independent software development. Along the way I learned how to run a business, optimize my websites for search engines, create persuasive marketing copy, and a lot more. With each new skill I acquired, I have one or more friends who I attribute to helping me along the way. I could not have done it without them.

You definitely are the company you keep, both in your friends as well as with your spouse/significant other.

And I did more or less all that stuff too and I have no one I attribute it to except myself.

I would definitely not say definitely. Some people are highly influenced by friends, some are not.

I studied finance and economics in college and spent 5 years in banking. Last year I quit my job and taught myself python/django, HTML, CSS, and Jquery. Last week I did a demo of my financial software for my old boss and he loved it. It's going to allow his analysts to do their analysis in a few minutes instead of a few hours.

My wife and I moved to a new city while I went through this process, and it was mostly a lonely road. Friends matter, but don't let a trite saying deter you from making things happen. If you want to do something, just go do it. Your friends will soon follow.

"If the main topic of conversation you have with your friends is not how you can better yourself, you need to get new friends."

Friends serve a number of purposes. Some make us better people, some accept and support us for who we are. The best ones manage to do both at the same time.

But I think looking at a friendship from the angle of how it can benefit you and make you a better person is a somewhat selfish metric upon which to judge the quality or value of a friend.

I have certainly learned a lot from my closest friends over the years and I'm better for it, professionally and personally, but it's not the reason I chose those particular people as friends. It's a side-effect of having friends with similar interests and values, who happen to have different skill sets and different perspectives on life.

Neither is the sharing of that wisdom intentional, either, but rather it just sort of organically happens over time as we share experiences together and help each other out with work, family, and life in general. The motivation isn't to "make me better" it's to "be a better friend."

We are, after all, talking about friends here, not co-workers or colleagues or instructors or employers. This "bottom line" just feels rather shallow and selfish.

> But I think looking at a friendship from the angle of how it can benefit you and make you a better person is a somewhat selfish metric upon which to judge the quality or value of a friend.

I was put off by the article in a way I couldn't quite pin down. What you said was exactly it.

I'm all for intellectual stimulation by interacting with people in the same profession, but that's not all there is to life. It's certainly not all there is to being a happy and successful person, at least in my book. If my friends happen to be in the same profession, that's great. I'm not ready to declare that anyone outside of development is unworthy of my time.

I don't have "five closest friends". Who am I, then? :)

The average of your n<5 closest friends, and 5-n nobodies.

I don't understand how the title of the article is relevant. I'm inclined to believe that there's some truth to it, but after reading the blog, I didn't gain any insight on the topic. It just seemed like a nice story about a girl who turned her career around.

At the very least, I don't see how an automation engineer is the mean of two Google engineers, a brogrammer, an architect, and a soccer team president.

Perhaps you also have to average in her previous job?

The title suggests some sort of study involving more than one person, the content isn't a study, it's an anecdote.

Also, your "bottom line" is worse than patronizing, it's bullshit. I have friends that I talk movies with. I have other friends I talk music with. Others I talk about technology with. Even others I talk about relationships with. None of my goals in knowing and interacting with those people include "get advice from them and become a better person".

Have I become better through interaction with all of them? Of course. But that's expected as long as you are receptive to changing and you have friends that are competent.

Is this really a true story? Can you tell us a bit more about it? I'm not asking for details that would identify her, but for more details on how she got there.

Hi, yeah this is a true story and it is about me. Ask me anything.


1) Maybe "having a mission" would be the best approach at throwing yourself against the wall over and over again, but I'd like to know if that was the thing that motivated you not to stop learning. Never did the thought "ok, maybe I'm not cut for this" cross your mind?

2) You learned chinese during that time? How proficient are you in that language? Did you do it on your own or did you take classes?

3) Any time management technique you'd like to share with us?

I probably will have more questions later.. :)

1) You are right, having a mission definitely kept me on track. It also gave me peace. The moment I decided to start learning about technology, I felt confidence. I knew that one day I will leave the mediocre jobs and be part of this new field. This thought alone gave me confidence when I went to job interviews. During the interview with Genentech I remember thinking about some html code that I just learned and how I want to go home and learn more. Having an alternative made me a more confident job candidate. My hobby is learning foreign languages, I like learning something new every day. So when I noticed that this is part of every tech position, I decided that it is closer to what I need, even if it is not the perfect match. I did question whether I am cut out for this many times, but I had nothing to lose. If I was coming from a career field that I loved I might have felt otherwise.

2) I was learning Chinese at the end of the day to compensate for not learning anything at work. I was studying on my own, mainly with Rosetta Stone and grammar books. It was an on and off process and I did feel burned out sometimes. Recently I had lost motivation, especially since I am much happier at work. So I joined my first Mandarin class to get a new direction and see where I am. It is intermediate level and everyone in the class is much better than me, because they have lived in China for 1 year. So I have a lot to learn still but I would say that during the first nine months I laid a pretty good foundation.

3) I am not good with time management myself, which is why it took me so long to enter this field. I find the study groups I attend very helpful with this. Check out meetup.com for your area and search for a topic of interest. Find the right study group which will allow you to learn on your pace, yet require your dedication. When you are surrounded with people who are also on a mission, it motivates you. Even better if you share the same mission.

"which is why it took me so long to enter this field." Good one. :)

Great to hear you've found happiness in geekery.

Do you have your next level-up planned?

I am shooting for the stars. Maybe a Ruby on Rails developer.

Come say 'Hi!' at the next Selenium meetup! :-)

I'd ignore all the complaints here about the Bottom Line message. People will bash you for making an "absolute truth", take it or leave statement - but people will also bash you for trying to appeal to everyone with an obvious generalization. You can't please everyone so at least pick a voice and stick to it.

I enjoyed the post, even if some of the points are contentious and make me, personally, feel uncomfortable. There is value in being uncomfortable and reading someone point out flaws that I might (ok...that I do) have. It feels bad initially, but sometimes you need that slap in the face to get out of a rut or spark a change in your life.

Thanks for the advice. I've come to realize that posting anything on HN will always amount to some bit of criticism.

Also, I agree that you're spot on with your idea that there is value in being uncomfortable. I agree so much, in fact, that I wrote a blog article about how being uncomfortable is a great motivator.

It's called, "Please, Make Yourself Uncomfortable."

Here it is: http://bufr.tumblr.com/post/6768971854/please-make-yourself-...

I notice a basic difference between men (which most ppl here in HN are) and women is that men's first impulse is to be critical, while women lean towards being supportive... nothing inherently wrong with either approach, both have its merits at certain times... if you're looking for emotional support, absolutely DO NOT go to men. They're horrible and want to suggest solutions, while you just want to be listened to.

Thanks for the link, I'll check it out.

> People will bash you for making an "absolute truth"

I think people are bashing the statement because it's wrong, not because it's absolute. At least, I have no problem with people making absolute statements as long as they are correct, but this one certainly isn't.

Who is to say whether it is correct or not? Even if you disagree with the point, I don't see anything that makes it "certainly [not correct]".

It's trivially obvious to me that if the betterment of your economic situation is not your main goal in life, his advice is incorrect.

"If the main topic of conversation you have with your friends is not how you can better yourself, you need to get new friends."

I'm sure there is some small subset of people for whom this is true. But if that's the criteria for evaluating the truth of a universal statement then it would be hard to make one about humans that is false.

I read the statement in a much broader way, and would disagree that it is at all obvious that he meant it in the narrow sense you are interpreting it.

In fact, if you read the whole article, I'm somewhat confused that you could imagine he even primarily means economic betterment.

It seems clear to me that he means you should be working to live your life doing things you want to do. That's what the entire article is about.

Considering all the discussion of career switches and unhappy jobs, I'd have to differ with you on that point. To me it seems like the "doing what you love" is more in service to having a better job than the other way around. But I can see how you might come to the conclusion you have.

I don't think bettering yourself necessarily means getting into a career with code. Not sure if that's how you meant it, but I think the idea is to continually develop and learn and if you aren't happy, do something about it.

That's why I am learning to code. Not to be an engineer or to code day to day, but to open more opportunities to work with people and to be able to hang with the brogrammers. Current iteration is recruiter, who knows where I will end up, but I sure as hell am going to keep improving myself and keep looking until I find it!

Hi Christina! I'll be in Seattle in January. Let's meet for a coffee and show me around town!

Also, I didn't mean to imply that engineers are the only people doing anything. Continuous improvement was the point, and your friends can help you get there as long as you pick your friends right.

I would love to know more about this story. I think too many people out there feels in the same situation.

Randy Pausch said: "The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out; the brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. The brick walls are there to stop the people who don't want it badly enough. They are there to stop the other people!"

My congratulations for her. She is another living example for inspiration.

Seems like most people strongly disagrees with that bottom line about friends, ignoring the rest of the post, which is very inspiring. Thanks!

I actually somewhat agree with that bottom line. The whole point is lost when we try to put it more softly and ‘appropriately’. It just sounds too unnatural for us social creatures. But it is in some way true, as it is true that your environment influences you much:

For example, people born in poor families have little chance to become rich and successful no matter how hard they work—it just requires different mindset. That mindset, it seems, can be acquired by either a) moving away from friends and family that drag you down (the earlier the better) or, probably, b) being an introvert, asocial person. I've had myself a similar experience.

I think I've read somewhere that the more social a species is, the less smart its representatives are at average—take for example dogs and cats. (I would appreciate if someone would confirm or disprove that information. And it should still be mentioned that individual intelligence doesn't appear to matter much in a group work anyway http://lesswrong.com/lw/3mh/link_collective_intelligence/.)

You can't train a cat like you can train a dog.

I know this is barely relevant, but anyway: if we're all the average of our 5 closest friends, it means we're all identical, unless the population is split into disjoint subgroups that have no friendships between them.

If that's not the case, how could the highest-quality person have 5 friends? By definition, they're all worse than her, so their average can't be equal to her, unless we're all equal.

Anyway, back to the anecdotes about Eventbrite or whatever.

Consider an icosahedron. At each vertex a person with a vector pointing outwards. In this example, people are normalized and can be understood by 3 dimensions. There you have 12 unique persons, each of them an average of the 5 surrounding it. Pick one of them as the best, you will see that doesn't in any way violate that it is still the average.

Anyway, yeah, it also smells bad, but it could have a grain of truth.

Ah, and I had assumed we were scalars!

But you're right, and what's even better is that the icosahedron case generalizes to people walking on the surface of a sphere (assuming they're evenly spaced).

Erm, I could be wrong but wouldn't the icosahedron be the maximum "evenly spaced" set of people on the surface of a sphere (that weren't all confined to a great circle)? Lots of regular polygons, rather fewer regular polyhedra.

(Of course if we make the jump to a 4D sphere we can put 600 people into the largest regular polytope, the hexacosichoron. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convex_regular_4-polytope)

EDIT: I am wrong, it'd only take a uniform polyhedron, not a regular one. E.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Icosidodecahedron

FYI, the original quote is by motivational "guru" Jim Rohn: “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”

I take issue with that 'bottom line'. I have friends who I hang out with and talk about the business side of what we do, yeah. We also spend a hell of a lot of time just kicking around and critiquing PROJECT IDEAS, and sharing the stuff we've found that we think is pretty awesome.

All the things you are listed are about Getting Better...

Your conversations shouldn't be reciting self-help books to each other. Sharing stuff you think is awesome and kicking around projects are both great examples of bettering each other. Gossiping about celebrities or talking about that new World of Warcraft expansion pack are not.

What if you happen to think the new World of Warcraft expansion pack is awesome?

Improved micro is still self improvement :)

Warning: This website maxes out your CPU, for no obvious reason. Happens on Firefox and Opera.

Might be related to the fancy graphical effect on the top there. Is it worth making all of our fans run, though, I am not sure.

writing software is not the only way to change the world. though, if this is the life she was interested in living, this is an awesome story for her. most decent people's friends don't necessarily need to be engineers or high achievers to have great value. (none of that is positive or negative in response to the post.)

Cute anecdote, but I was hoping for something about social media data analysis...

Amazing article, thank you for it.

What? What was with the Eventbrite 'brogrammer' paragraph? You seem to say that 'marrying' social life and technology is a bad thing, but it's the segue into her (apparent) use of user groups and networking to further her career. Also:

Bottom line: If the main topic of conversation you have with your friends is not how you can better yourself, you need to get new friends.

Uh. No. If you drop universal statements like that, you're probably... Well, I won't go into it. At any rate, there are a wide variety of reasons to have friends.

The 'brogrammer' line was my vain attempt to drop some humor into the article. I'm an engineer, not a writer, and I'm learning through comments like the ones you made to better my writing for the future, and to find out what is appropriate and what is not.

Thanks for the feedback.

That "brogrammer" part was ambiguous, and it wasn't clear whether it was meant as a compliment or a complain. Reading the next paragraph about her going to meetups and advancing her career does make it clear that it was meant to be positive, but I still find the premise and conclusion inconsistent.

Agreed, it would have read clearer had the (a) sarcasm been more apparent, or (b) the effect been immediately described as beneficial.

Haha, s/engineer/theoretical physicist/ and you sound like TBBT's Sheldon Cooper.

What is a brogrammer, anyway? I am imagining something like the Cheezburger "Bro" site, but sitting at a computer??

Popped collars, sunnies and fratboy antics; enthusiasm for 'Agile' entirely optional.

A primer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qi_AAqi0RZM

(Yes, it's dumb.)

Bros before Hoes

English isn't my first language, but I believe "hoe" means prostitute, and doesn't have any positive connotations in any context.

Your remark doesn't have anything to do with the context, and is offensive.

"Ho" means prostitute. "Hoe" means garden tool.

If the main topic of conversation you have with your friends is not how you can better yourself, you need to get new friends.

Or, put another way, if you prefer to read fiction and non-personal non-fiction rather than self-help books you need to get some new books. Why? Because Oprah said so.

I agree with the implication that talking about bettering yourself isn't usually the best way to better yourself.

I'm a 99% introvert, with an EQ of 42. This post really fails to account for outliers; sometimes people are simply far out of line with respect to the average.

hello there fellow intovert. quick question, where did you measure your EQ?

I took a standardized test at school around half a decade ago. I don't remember which one. It was normalized such that 100 is average.

I think this is the kind of thing that you need a professional to do, rather than just doing some random internet test. (if you want the result to have any meaning that is).

Besides, why did you give the _lmgtfy_ link and then say which result to click? Why not just give the result directly?

I don't think those tests work very well? I scored 49 and I am introverted. I find people easy to read and befriend, but I don't actually want their company. Isn't that the definition of an introvert?

It's like these tests assume people are introverted because they lack social skills. I find that a little insulting.

next time, just assume the question is about choosing which google result to follow. thanks

I apparently scored a whopping 16 points.

me having 26 seems a rather good score after reading yours.


sry, wrote 19 instead of 26. still not sure if I care about you caring. but I do care more than you I guess.

I was making a joke. Or apparently confirming my score of 16.

I did get your joke, and made one on top of it. I would guess we both have improvement to be made.

Wow. I am retarded.

I'm going to go look for friends at an Aspberger's Meetup group now.

There is no post in the world that accounts for all outliers.

On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.

A number of transhumanists respectfully disagree.

My close friends all moved away after I graduated college two years ago... am I a nothing person because I'm not a socialite like Jane?

This advice is far from universal, though it's an interesting insight into the author's perspective on friends. If you are the type of person who would rather take your own advice, regardless of whom you have frequent social interactions with, then your close friends (however many you have, five is not necessary) are more than likely going to be people who accept the fact that they do not control your life. That doesn't mean that they are not your friends. It just means you don't use your "friends" as bars with which you are constantly trying to get above. Friends are people who you choose to be with, for whatever reason. So if you have the need to constantly feel like shit by having your friends tell you how much your life sucks in order to feel motivated enough to take action for yourself, than this advice is for you. But many people would rather not hang their life's course on the words of their five closest friends. Not to say I'm not impressed by "Jane's" achievements, because that sounds like a hell of a lot of dedication!

I like your articles. Bookmark'd your blog. You are wise.

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