You’ve heard it before. It’s a popular quote, and I see it a lot all around the internet. Jim Rohn said, “You are the sum of the five people with whom you spend the most time.” We’re supposed to think about those five people and determine whether or not they’re inspiring us or bringing us down. We’re supposed to hang out with like-minded people, or people who push us to be better. If we’re hanging out with slackers, we’re most likely going to be slackers ourselves.
I’ve thought about this concept a lot. I even once tried to teach a course based on it. I was looking at literary circles and how groups of writers influenced one another – for better or worse. It was a good idea, but not a well-executed one. I wasn’t hanging out with really good teachers at the time, I guess.
But, I think about it from time to time. Whenever I see the quote pop up in my Twitter feed or on an Instagram post, I do some mental math. Who’s in my circle? Are they motivating me to be better?
Sometimes the answer is yes and sometimes it’s not. Even with the same five folks. It doesn’t mean I love them any less.
Recently, I was listening to a podcast and then looked up the guest on Twitter. He had the Rohn quote set as his background image. It stunned me for a minute. I thought, “Wow. He really thinks that’s important.” And for a minute,, I thought about how important it was to me.
Later that same night, while I was reading before bed, I came across the quote again. I’m reading The Power of No by James Altucher and Claudia Azula Altucher. In the book, they suggest an exercise they’ve named “We Are the Average of the Five People We Spend Time With.” They suggest listing the five people, whether or not you can trust them, and whether or not they respect your boundaries.
But, the part that resonated was the last paragraph in the exercise. The Altuchers wrote, “…you may want to take it one step further. You are also the average of the five things you have around you, the ideas of the five books you have your attention on, the feelings from the five movies or shows you watch, and so on.”
I was stunned for a second. I thought about how I’ve been having Game of Thrones dreams. It’s often on in the background while I do dishes or laundry. I’ve had other shows on as background noise, too. I did a quick evaluation, and none of them motivated me to move the dial in my own life.
I thought of the books I’m currently reading. One is about setting boundaries. I read something from Overcoming Underearning every day still. I’m reading a lot of articles on narrative theory at the moment. I can feel wheels turning from all of them. I’m even seeing how they complement one another.
Let’s look at that again. We are the sum of:
- The five people we spend time with
- The five things we have around us
- The ideas of the five books we have our attention on
- The feelings from the five movies or shows we watch.
I’ll add one more: We are the sum of the five websites we read most often.
When I was just starting to pay off my student loan debt, I opened my laptop and went to the Dear Debt blog every day. I was eager for updates. I wanted to learn strategies and get motivated. My five most read blogs were all debt related.
Now that I’ve paid off that debt, I’m opening my laptop and starting with Rockstar Finance. I click on the post title that most likely deals with saving money or retiring early. I’m more interested in financial independence than I am debt. And it shows in my website reading.
I believe that reveals how important those five things are. I also believe it reveals that shifting those five things is important. Important and possible.
I wasn’t the most intentional with my changing interests. It just sorta happened. Once the debt was gone, I felt the first stirrings, and then I started to aggressively read about FIRE. Reading the passage from the Altucher book has made me realize that I can be more intentional about my surroundings, my books, my shows, my blog reading, my activities.
Yes, activities. What if we’re the sum of the five activities we do daily.
I mean, I’m a professor. In a discussion recently with an old friend, he was talking about the purpose of a website he wanted to build. He wants to entertain. I kept pushing for “something deeper.” I gave an example of a post I wanted to write for my essay site in which I show various drafts of a project. He said, “But you’re a teacher at your core.”
And I thought, “Am I?”
Of course I am! I do it every day!
When we’re trying to make a plan, sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. Maybe we just need to set a “sum of five” rule. Start by looking at the five people you spend time with. Does anything need to change? Then, look at the five shows you watch. Does anything need to change? [Maybe you don’t need to be watching shows at all and you can replace them with podcasts or audio books.] Look at the five activities you do daily. Does anything need to change?
Look at the five items on you use most often. What area of your life do they represent? Are they cooking utensils? Remote controls? Hair styling products? Are they helpful? Meaningful?
Look at the five songs you listen to most often. How do they make you feel? Sad? Vengeful? Confident?
Examine your life in fives. Then, think about whether or not the things already in place are pushing you toward the life you want.
If they’re not, you can replace them. You can swap something out. Just keep it at five. You’re not the sum of the seven people. You’re not the sum of the ten shows you watch.
It really is deeper than five people. Use the power of the “sum of five” rule to make a plan for yourself. Use the rule to surround yourself with five people who will support that plan. Say no to adding more than five. Keep that boundary. See what happens.
Have you ever thought about the sum of the five people you spend time with? What about the sum of the five shows you watch? Any other fives come to mind?