The people you spend time around matter.
Your language, your thoughts, your ambitions, your goals, and your tasks all come from the norms and standards of the group of people with whom you hang out.
This isn't some sort of self-help mumbo jumbo that says that if you just hang around successful people you somehow become successful. That's not how it works. Hanging around successful people will drive you to challenge assumptions about success you might otherwise have and will force you to think in bigger terms than you otherwise would, but it won't automatically make you successful.
Think about this just in terms of what authors or public figures you look up to.
This became painfully clear to me recently while on a date. I was trying to make an analogy about some kind of work and decided to compare it to the work done by two mega-figures that all of my friends know and constantly talk about.
"It's kind of like the stuff that Tim Ferriss does."
"...or Gary Vaynerchuk?"
"...I don't know who either of those people are."
I was surprised by how much this surprised me. These are two thinkers who all of my friends reference, read, or at least know about and this was not an unintelligent or out of touch person with whom I was speaking.
Why Your Default Peer Group is At Work
The average American's peer group is made of people with whom they work. If you're particularly ambitious or tied your identity close to your job -- as early stage startup employees, I-bankers, consultants, or professionals like doctors or lawyers often do -- your core peer and friend group is probably identical to a list of your closest co-workers.
This makes intuitive sense. You have to spend long hours with these people doing hard work all the time, you all tie your own personal identities (how you think about yourselves), and you all read, work on, and listen to the same material. Why wouldn't you want these people to be your core friends? Especially in the case of people working towards a niche or unusual mission, a sizable chunk of your identity is, by definition, weird or outside of the average.
For Americans in particular, where else would you pick up friends? You wake up, go to work, come home, go to sleep, and go to work. If you go to a coffeeshop, it's only to get a cup of coffee and get on the move. If you go to a restaurant, it's to eat and get on the move. There are essentially only two places for informal socialization -- the key first activity that brings people together and that births friendships -- work and home.
This was the case for me. I recently sat down to review some of my one-year goals and rediscovered that I had made a goal that no more than 20% of my close friend group would be colleagues (this is a lot easier when you're self-employed). I had written this goal down because the fact that so many of my peers were colleagues ate me up for months at a time before and I had no idea how to break free of it.
Why Work Wants This to be Your Peer Group...
Your employer has an incentive to promote friendships and socialization at work. Besides the obvious fact that happier employees make for better retention and recruitment, people who tie all of their social connections to their job are more tied to their job.
The benefit of employees (versus contractors or consultants) is they are predictable and controllable. The reason why tech companies cater lunch and have snack bars fully stocked at all times is not just to make employees happy but also to keep them in the office longer so that they can work more.
A good friend of mine works for a major private tech company and often works longer hours than he needs to. I asked him why and what benefit he gets for working late. The firm is large enough that his staying-late doesn't really get noticed by managers, so it isn't to signal that he's a good employee. His answer hit me in the face: "Well, it gets close to time to go home and between rush hour and the effort to make dinner for myself, I'd rather just stay until 6:30, eat some of the food here, and then leave."
Nassim Nicholas Taleb discusses this, especially how it related to an employee's social life, in his book Skin in the Game:
The company man is best defined as someone whose identity is impregnated with the stamp his firm wants to give him. He dresses the part, even uses the language the company expects. His social life is so invested in the company that leaving it inflicts a huge penalty, like banishment from Athens under the Ostrakon.
A company man is someone who feels that he has something huge to lose if he doesn't behave as a company man -- that is, he has skin in the game.
(Emphasis mine. Page 99.)
Team off-sites, happy hours, barbecues, and "team building" exercises help companies not just in getting new employees acquainted with each other but also in raising the cost of leaving the company. Having to get a new paycheck somewhere is stressful enough. But new friends? Screw that.
...And the Danger In This
The danger here is in the fact that there is a core point or condition outside of your friendship that defines the friendship. In other words, if something happens -- you quit in a rush, get fired, or the company suddenly closes -- you run the risk of being out a paycheck and an immediate peer group. "Banishment from Athens," in Taleb's words.
With a normal friendship, you are friends because you share interests and values and those are usually what made you keep connecting after being brought together by geography. You may have met somebody in college or high school with whom you hit it off and then you kept meeting up with them after that. If that person left college or graduated, you it made sense to keep them in your peer group. The geography was just the factor that brought you together.
With work-dependent connections, work is the condition that keeps bringing you together, not shared interests or values. Outside of the niche subject matter on which your work focuses, you may have little in common with these people and actually find them quite disagreeable.
There's nothing wrong with this in and of itself but it becomes problematic when work is the only, or even primary, source of friends or connections. Take, for example, the fact that people in general and men in particular (who are more likely to identify directly with their jobs) who retire are more likely to feel lonely and more likely to die prematurely.
In these cases, as in the case of the recent college grad who moves and doesn't have any friends outside of school or the case of the recent divorce who lost all of his friends in the split, the dangerous and necessary condition of friendship or peer-ship was just proximity.
In short, all of your colleagues can be your friends but all of your friends should not be your colleagues.
Try to Find a "Third Place"
It's one thing to read this rule and another to follow it.
Life happens and we default to the easiest path. You graduate from college and start a new job in a new city. Going and making friends outside of work takes time and energy, often neither of which you have.
People default to the path of least resistance when they have two options for addressing challenges. For most Americans, this means finding friends and peers in one of the two places they spend time: work or home. Since home is just you and your family, work is the source of friends.
There is a third category of places, though, and they are worth finding. These places, called "the third place" or "the Great Good Place" in the book of the same title by Ray Oldenburg, are places whose primary function is neither being at home nor work. If they have a primary function, it's for informal and unplanned socializing. These are places for flaneuring, lazing around, bumping into people and having conversations, and meeting new people in your community. These places are rarely limited to one class, age, or type of person. In other societies, these are the English pub, the French cafe, the German Biergarten, the Roman forum, and the Greek agora.
In the United States, these are hard to find. Zoning and suburbanization work to explicitly divide work and home from each other with little in between.
For me, the closest to a Great Good Place is the occasional coffeeshop or the neighborhood diner.
Here's a quick example:
In my own neighborhood, there's a small coffeeshop called Commonplace Coffee. Besides having great coffee at reasonable prices, the shop serves a secondary role as a central point in the neighborhood. Families with children, gaggles of elderly women, young adults, and teenagers can be found inside the shop on an average day, often staying longer than a visit to Starbucks so that they can converse and meet others.
Just earlier this week, I went to the shop to read and enjoy some espresso. Towards the end of my time there, the guy next to me, a young pastor (as indicated by his study Bible and notes for an upcoming sermon) turned to me and asked me if I was writing a book. I told him yes and asked him how he knew. He had been in the shop the previous week while I was talking to a friend about the book-writing process. We chatted for half an hour about that experience and I found out that he knows my roommate, lives nearby, and has several shared interests.
This is somebody I would have never bumped into at the office (if I had an office...I work from home).
Go out and look for your own Great Good Place. These are places where people often stay for long periods of time for ends other than working or consuming food or coffee. They have varied clienteles and rarely look like major franchises and chains (although there's a great case to be made for McDonald's as a Great Good Place).
Can't You Just Go Find a Hobby?
I could tell you to just go "find a hobby," but finding a hobby isn't a cure to the issue at hand. If you bump into somebody at the gym, you can assume you both have a shared interest in fitness, but the conversation often limits itself to that and socialization limits itself to the boundaries of the gym. Without conscious effort, this person becomes a "gym buddy." Having a gym buddy is better than having no gym buddy, but this person is far from a peer.
Yes, go find a hobby, but also get out and try to get into the habit of casually bumping into people. Every person you bump into doesn't have to become a friend or a peer but it will make your own social life less fragile to the whims of work or your local gym.
Let Me Know
What are some of your favorite Great Good Places? Tweet them at me @zslayback or reply to the confirmation email for my newsletter (below).