People generally form into groups and communities because of some shared “being” (values and goals), “doing” (habits and actions), or “having” (possessions).
Because the purpose of this article is to encourage you to find supportive communities that will help you pursue your most important goals, I’ll be primarily discussing groups and communities that are based on shared values and goals. Obviously, in a lot of cases such groups will share “doing” and “having” attributes as well. For example, a group with ambitious rock climbing goals is likely to “have” climbing equipment, and to “do” frequent rock climbing outings.
Many people who start to explore personal growth and change come across the statement from Jim Rohn, that “you become the average of the five people you spend the most time with”. For many of us, this is a difficult truth to face. Most of us believe that we are independent and strong-minded. We are able to go against the crowd and build ourselves into the people that we want to be and choose to be.
And this can actually happen, of course – many “inspirational” stories describe someone who beats the odds and rises out of challenging circumstances – even poverty, gang violence, and abuse – to become successful and make a contribution to the world. Part of the reason why these stories are so inspiring, however, is that we know how challenging and uncommon it is to go against the values and habits taught by our environment, influences, and peer group. Also, the common thread of many such stories involves the positive influence of a mentor (like a teacher or a parent) or a small group, that was able to counteract the prevailing negative influence of the surrounding environment. Few of us are able to break out of toxic environments with no external sources of help and support.
Most of the time, the habits and goals of the people we surround ourselves with, will tend to become our habits and goals. If we grow up in a family where everyone goes to college, it’s pretty likely that we will go to college. If we spend most of our time with smokers, odds are good that we either are or will become smokers.
A case study of this phenomenon provides scientific support to what we know intuitively and see within our social worlds. Specifically, researchers found that weight gain and obesity occurred in clusters and spread as though they were transmitted, through peer groups, like a fad, a rumor, or a virus.
The increased risk of obesity ranged from approximately 60-170 percent among friends, depending on whether a given pair considered each other mutual friends. Similar, but smaller increases in risk were associated with siblings and spouses. This powerful influence was measured across geographic boundaries, and through three degrees of separation in the social network!  Perhaps it might be more accurate to say that our body mass index (BMI) becomes the average BMI of the five people we spend the most time with. 😉
As a child, we are part of accidental groups and communities. We don’t choose our family, or the set of six year olds who will be in our first grade class. However, as adults, we can consciously choose additional communities that will move us in the direction that we wish to go – groups with the same goals and values that we have. And of course, we always have the power to choose the community of “people who sit at the bar, smoke and drink, and complain about things while doing nothing to change them”. 🙂
So we know that the influence of our surrounding communities is powerful, for good or bad, on our habits and behavior. Why is this? What is it about participating in a group with a focused purpose (whether implicit or explicit) that causes us to change our behavior?
There are five key reasons why working in groups is such a powerful way to reach shared goals: focus, accountability, mentoring, role modeling, and support.
A consciously-designed group is focused on a specific activity or goal. It is a powerful motivator for us to be among others with the same interests, values and goals, especially if those are uncommon in society as a whole. For example, a group with goals and interests in health and fitness can act against the fast food and junk food advertising messages that are common in popular media.
The action of making promises and setting goals has much more power when we commit publicly, in the presence of others we respect, rather than just in our own thoughts or in a private journal. This is the positive side of “peer pressure” – we can leverage our own egos, pride, and fear of embarrassment, in order to reach greater goals than we would be able to achieve under our own power.
Mentoring and teaching
Groups provide the opportunity for direct mentoring and teaching, in which more experienced community members can share what they have learned with less experienced members. This process both reinforces the lessons for the “teachers”, and steepens the learning curve for the “students”. The collective memory of lessons learned by the community makes students less likely to practice incorrect habits, and enables them to be corrected more quickly when those habits do happen.
New group members don’t need to “reinvent the wheel” and to make the same mistakes that were already made by others long ago.
Role and behavior modeling
Teaching and mentoring represent active forms of knowledge transfer, but a goal-oriented group can also provide a less tangible, passive knowledge transfer in the form of role models.
This factor can be highly motivating for both “teachers” and “students”. Teachers recognize that they are role models for their students, and strive to live up to expectations and to continue to develop and grow. Students are able to see others who were formerly in their position, and who developed themselves and achieved increasingly challenging goals over time.
In the course of pursuing difficult goals, we all encounter times where our motivation drops. Facing experiences like these alone is hard, and can cause us to give up on our goals. However, in the presence of a supportive group, we are much more likely to hold on to our goals through these bad periods, and ultimately to reach them. Conversely, when we feel highly motivated, we are able to share our energy and good mood and use it to help motivate others.
Because of these five factors, our communities and social networks are powerful forces in our lives, even if we are independent-minded people. (And let’s be honest, who doesn’t believe – however mistaken they may be – that they can think independently and go against the status quo whenever the situation demands it.)
Therefore, the best place to apply our independent thinking is before we join a community. Once we’re part of a community, its influence, whether positive or negative, is already acting on us. By joining communities that support progress toward our goals, and leaving those that hinder that progress, we create the best possible opportunity for success in the goals that matter most to us.
 The original article in the New England Journal of Medicine is found here [pdf].
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