Humans are like sponges. Put any two humans together and each starts absorbing the traits of the other, including biases, fashion sense, work ethic, morality, preferences, conversation style, knowledge, aspirations, and – according to recent studies – even weight. We don’t do most of this intentionally. It just happens.
That’s why mentors are so important. My best guess is that 80% of the public has never even met a highly successful person. I never met anyone who was unusually successful until I was in my thirties.
If I made a list of all of my personal traits, I could trace most of them back to the people from whom I absorbed them. I can tell you who taught me to speak to authority figures without breaking into a flop sweat, who taught me to hug friends without acting as if I’m about to get frisked, who taught me to see the humor in bad news, and so on. And none of those people are aware that they taught me anything. They simply existed in my presence and I absorbed some of their good stuff.
In the past two years, by coincidence, several of my close friends have become fitness maniacs. My co-founder in an Internet startup just finished an Iron Man competition. Another friend looks like a fitness cover model. Another takes one of the most grueling fitness classes at my gym, and then she takes the one after it too. Two of my friends want me to buy a better bike and join them on their 60-mile weekend rides. I find the situation quite humbling.
On the plus side, my association with these extra-fit people seems to be rubbing off. I’m in the best physical shape of my life, by far. My estimate is that at least half of that improvement is because of the peer influence. It didn’t take any extra willpower. I didn’t set any particular fitness goals. It feels as if it just sort of happened.
Back in the early days of “Dilbert,” when I was still working my day job at Pacific Bell, I was a bit of workplace celebrity. In a sea of cubicle despair, my coworkers witnessed one persistent optimist clawing his way out. They had a front row seat to the show, and hardly a day passed without someone saying they felt inspired by it. Within a few years, two of my coworkers wrote and published their own books. It’s hard to imagine that as a coincidence, although obviously it could be. I think the combination of my success with “Dilbert” and my ordinariness made success seem more accessible. I think something rubbed off.
My observation over a lifetime is that you can program yourself for different traits by managing your personal associations. If you want to be more fit, spend time with friends who make it look easy. If you want more ambition, find some friends who already have it. If you want to avoid being a pessimistic sink hole, avoid the people who give off that vibe. And if you can’t find the right kind of people locally, consider moving.
We humans have a natural tendency to see ourselves as special. That’s probably a useful instinct up to a point. But consider the possibility that your DNA provides only a platform for your personality whereas the details of your traits are programmed by your associations. Once you understand your body as a trait sponge, you can take control of your own programming. And that’s when the fun starts.