The danger of closed systems, and the benefits of challenging our own beliefs
You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with - Jim Rohn
The above quote has helped me in my life, but as usual, there are a lot of nuances in how it works. The assumption is that you readily have 5 people that are a positive influence available, and that the pool you can draw from is varied.
Even in the case of drawing from, say, one’s university classmates: since I was self-selected into the demographic of economics majors with high grades, it was really a closed system with people similar to me in many aspects. If I had only drawn 5 people from that class cohort, I would really not be who I am today. The average of five 8s is still 8.
Using a “default, low effort” pool available (e.g. only university classmates) is simply picking from within a homogeneous closed system. Hence, the average of 5 people one spends the most time with would barely differ from how the individual is already. For the Jim Rohn quote to work, one has to actively mold their pool of people that they then draw five people from.
- The dangers of closed systems
- How to break out of closed systems and expand one’s reference group
In my example, I met people from other majors, who then opened my eyes to the startup world, tech, as well as performance arts. This breadth has helped me in anything I work on: data science, game development, and creative writing. The (accidental) effort put into expanding my peer group at the time was what allowed the Jim Rohn quote to come to fruition.
As with anything I write about, I believe that this is a repeatable and learnable skill. Here I will describe why I would do it all over again, and how to make the most of one’s
N person peer group.
The dangers of closed systems
First of all I’d like to share some stories of closed systems, which are reminders to myself of why it is so important to avoid being stuck in one.
Over-indexed comparisons lead to unhappiness
Recently on Blind, I saw a thread about DoorDash and Airbnb’s IPOs. Many employees who held stock were rejoicing over their increased net worth. But unsurprisingly, there were many regrets from those that had “missed the train”.
There was a particularly “heartwrenching” lament from someone who had turned down job offers from both companies, but went to work at another large tech company (worth several trillion USD). This “heartbroken” individual also already owns a house worth $1~2 million USD.
It stood out to me, because while I can understand the lament, as any normal human who’s missed a massive opportunity would, it was a reminder to myself to not only use metrics in a closed system to evaluate myself. In this case, it was a culture of chasing high compensation. I would never be happy, then!
Using Silicon Valley tech industry [on Blind?] closed system values and benchmarks, I might as well say that I am living in poverty now. This is absurd when I take a step back and look at it from literally any other angle with one foot outside the closed system.
As an aside: Blind is useful when I want to get information outside my own closed system (Toronto, Canada based). The point is that taking the values of one enclosed system as universal truth, can hurt.
You might think I’m thinking too much about just one dissatisfied tech worker’s regrets, but everyone holds values from their own enclosed systems dear.
How much of your choice of university, your major, your occupation, and the firms you applied to, was influenced by aggregate perception from those in your home town, high school, family, and industry “norms” and “prestige”?
Under-indexed comparisons severely decrease negotiation power
Here is another example that works in the opposite direction - having an extremely low bar due to the norms in the closed system.
It was close to the holidays a couple of years ago - I was at one major gaming company’s offices for a celebration event. The conversation drifted to vacation days. One industry veteran, who had left AAA to form their own studio, was describing how people on the (former) AAA team rarely used all of their vacation days.
The total paid time off in question stunned me, who was just 1 year out of school at that point. I had more paid time off than these folks who had 10+ years of experience… and I took it off too.
I felt mentally nauseous as the conversation kept going; how they felt that x days would be better (still lower than mine), and speaking about late nights and weekends so, so nonchalantly, it frightened me. As someone outside the closed system, I couldn’t imagine how I would be able to healthily balance my extracurriculars, relationships, and health in that case.
This post isn’t about a particular industry in general, but about these closed systems. People in one system tend to speak about certain “truths”, which might seem totally strange to those outside.
In the data science system/bubble/circle, which I am also part of, there might be some discussions that could get anyone heated, but seem trivial to those outside. And when I step outside, I may think it trivial, too.
What I’ve learned, is that being so entrenched in a system, has severe consequences. And, it’s hard to even notice these consequences exactly due to being entrenched! This is why this example demonstrates how it impacts negotiation power.
For example, if I were negotiating for a job in [industry with low time off and salary as norm], I would be comfortable to ask for what I feel helps motivate me to do my work best. However, those that have been entrenched and see x days/ $y as the norm, would likely anchor on those lower amounts than those coming from other systems would.
How to break out of closed systems and expand one’s reference group
Now that I’ve outlined some cautionary examples that I personally use as a reminder when I’m getting unhappy or drained due to imposed values, here’s how it ties back into how the “average of 5 people you spend the most time with” quote can help.
Notice what closed systems are stifling
Some rapid fire personal examples:
- If I had taken my default (economics) peer group in university, where barely anyone was considering going into tech, I’d likely end up in finance, banking, or government. (Not a bad thing, just not what I see being reality now I’ve diverged.)
- If I had 100% followed my default peer group in high school, I wouldn’t have just dropped my entire life there to come to Canada. My real options at the time were to major in English literature or Anthropology (???) at National Taiwan University
- The values of my closed systems did impact my choices of University of Waterloo and University of Toronto. Thankfully they were in areas that I am extremely happy in, but I shudder to think if I had tried to do life sciences/ med school due to family expectations (strong hints)
What are examples in your life of prestige items/ truths/ values, that if you pretend you are in another industry/ geography/ background, would find absurd? Being able to identify these closed system beliefs is extremely helpful to seeing what one is over- or under-indexing that might not make sense in the big picture.
Since I have friends from many different areas, I can seek out what I am under-indexing, or over-indexing, and attempt to avoid those pitfalls. I encourage others to do the same, with their existing network or the methods below.
Action items to build a varied pool of “N people”
It has been extremely beneficial to me to increase the amount of systems that I am exposed to. Two of the largest are the gaming industry and data science field, which mutually help call out my BS when I’m becoming too tunnel-visioned in one of them.
There are many ways to broaden one’s systems:
- At conferences, one usually makes a beeline for talks that “seem interesting”. Try a talk that is on something you’ve never heard of before, or normally wouldn’t go to.
- For example: I might attend very product or business-y oriented talks as a technical person
- Actively reach out to different circles on LinkedIn or through existing network
- I’ve written about how I’ve met multiple interviewers by chance, but one key is that I didn’t 100% speak to data scientists only!
- Another is getting to know people outside of one’s university circle. I speak about this type of circle a lot, because from my perspective, university is where self-selection has already thrown people into buckets. Getting to know people in schools that your bucket might “have a rivalry/look down on” is a super effective heuristic of meeting people with different backgrounds.
It is worth it to try to create a reference group that includes people that aren’t already so similar to you that the average basically is who you are right now.
Only then, does the “you are the average of N people you spend the most time with” quote actively help you grow, and not be the “average” of what you are right now, suspended in time.
There’s a lot I have discussed in this post, and there is much more that I have experienced on the topic. My experiences moving around have really hammered home that “what worked there, might not work here”, and it’s helped me to challenge my own values and beliefs within each system that I find myself entrenched in.
It is still much a work in progress for myself, but I truly believe that being able to see my systems from multiple perspectives has helped me grow in my professional and personal life, as well as preventing me from becoming unhappy through endless comparisons.