The Science of Surrounding Yourself with “Good” People

We hear this piece of coming-of-age wisdom all the time: Cut out the people that hold you back. Surround yourself with people better than you. Find those who will inspire you and you will succeed. But what exactly does that mean? Who exactly are these people? How exactly am I supposed to go about finding these people that are good for me? What is good for me anyways?? Help, I’m lost in a sea of my own existentialism and I can’t Google my way out of it!

Well, regardless of who you are and where you come from, if you are trying to go somewhere to do something big, seemingly against all odds, there is one distinctive way to determine which types of people will give your dreams a boost simply by gracing you with their presence.

Cordelia Fine wrote this book called Delusions of Gender that affirms that it is in fact our inescapable sweeping cultural norms pushing upon our very impressionable and permeable brains that create this phenomenon called gender difference….Surprise! But not really and I actually hope you yawned. If you fell asleep, even, wow you I would like to meet. Anyways, but wake up now because I’m trying to warm you up and now I’m getting to the good part.

The studies that she uses to make her case are solid bits of research that have wide implications for how people, not just women, can change their environment and overcome the persistent waves of society-endorsed “No, no se puedes”, specifically because of who they are and what they’re trying to do.

I’ve taken some of these findings to create a not-so-MIT How-To Guide for identifying those who truly are scientifically good for you. I’ll explain it later so you don’t get influenced by pre-hindsight bias. And BTW, don’t think too much. Switch on automatic mode. You’re driving a car. Anyways, here it goes:

Step 1: Who do you want to be?

Think big. There are no limits, just pick something. Could be career-oriented (i.e. teacher, entrepreneur) could be something holistic (iconoclast, peaceful warrior, whatever). Write it down somewhere accessible then forget about it.

Step 2: Stereotype yourself

All of us belong to groups with stereotypes and this is the time to go nuts about it. But really, get out a piece of paper or maybe a virtual sticky note and make a list of every single group you belong to. Don’t bother being politically correct, it will actually serve you well just this one time. Are you white, American, asian, black, a mutt, college-educated, not college-educated, generation x/y/z, overweight/underweight, tall/short, have a symmetrical face, have kids/don’t have kids, have hair in your face all the time, artsy, athletic, plain, gorgeous, what are you?? Start with the big ones and some important ones and you can always go back and add more later once you get the gist of what this is all about.

Next, jot down the characteristics that come to mind for each group you listed. Don’t over-think it, just list the obvious ones, its irrelevant whether or not you agree with them. .

Step 3: Objectify your Step 1 identity

Remember that identity you picked in Step 1 and do a Google search for characteristics of (successful)_______. Look at some different pages and create a rather objective, comprehensive profile of this identity.

Next, circle the traits that are most “not me”, that you least identify yourself with.

Step 4: Find Your Stereotype Threats

Now, go back to your Step 2 list and find the groups you belong to that most strongly contradict with the traits you circled in Step 3. In a new place, write those groups down next to its respective contradicting traits.

Step 5: Immerse Yourself With The Contradictions

Look at the new list you created at the end of Step 4. Find the people who are of those groups yet embody the traits listed next to them. If you know some people in real life, great. For the rest of us, we can opt for another route. Do some research and find them virtually. Follow their blog. A handy tool is BlogLovin that allows you to consume a digest of street news each morning in one place. Follow their businesses, brush up on their teachings, read their publications, visit their websites, find press releases on them. Don’t feel like a creeper. NSA’s got the edge on that one.

Step 6: Make This a Regular Exercise

Like all good things, you gotta immerse yourself with the contradictions on a regular basis. Immediate brain re-wiring can happen instantaneously, which I’ll elaborate in a bit, but the good stuff happens when you stick with something.

Finally….The Science Behind It

Most of us are accepting, tolerant, open-minded people. We know that we have our prejudices, but in this information age we love our yoga, baklava, hip-hop and sticky pics all the same. However, results from Harvard’s Implicit Association Test (IAT) reveal that most of us hold two sets of beliefs: an external one we can consciously report and an internal one that we often misjudge and cannot consciously report. The former is more shaped through personal experiences and the latter is more shaped by prevailing environmental conditions. Both systems are equally valid. I can claim I believe women are just as ambitious as men and I would be telling the truth 100%. But if I don’t actually surround myself with ambitious women and their stories regularly, chances are, given a split second to give $100 to someone to double in an hour, I would probably choose a man. Internal belief systems are there to help us make quick decisions without overthinking when we are under pressure, but they can be dangerous when undiscovered because we can limit ourselves without knowing why.

The stereotypes we hold in our internal belief system can hold us back in various ways. Stereotype threats are powerful forces that limit our potential by using up valuable working memory resources during important tasks (meetings, presentations, assignments, etc.) for threat suppression (i.e. trying not to think about how women are worse than math during a math task) instead of kicking ass like you know how.

When we perform tasks where a group we belong to is stereotyped as less competent (i.e. females in math), just priming, or subtlety triggering our awareness that we belong to this supposedly “inferior group” significantly decreases performance. Angelica Moe found that just by telling women a downright lie (that women are better than men at mental rotation), they performed just as well as the men (read more about the study here). When women were told that there has been no scientific evidence that gender affects mathematical competence, they outperformed their male counterparts by 11 percentage points (read more about the study here).

So, how to override your implicit belief system? By acknowledging that they probably exist due to your prevailing immediate environment and then taking intentional steps to contradict them. For example, realize that you can’t name a single female entrepreneur? Do your research and follow some. Get to know a couple in person. Without contradicting the stories you’ve been fed first-hand, your internal belief system won’t buy it. But your brain learns fast. Commit to turning around just a couple contradictions and your internal belief system will begin to change. You won’t just know that women are capable. You’ll feel it too. That’s a huge difference. You’ll start to push the boundaries and unlock those areas of your Step 1 identities you thought “weren’t for you.” Truth is, none of us are just one thing. We’re a whole bunch of profiles, waiting to be called upon. Get all of them ready.

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