Setting The Curve

When I was in engineering school, I took a few classes early on that were designed to weed out those who were not able or willing to do the work necessary. I remember one particular class, taught by the head of the department. On the first day of class he had us look at the person to our left and then to our right, then he said, “Only one of you will be here by the end of this semester.” He wasn’t far off.

They graded that class, and most of my other engineering classes, on a curve. If you haven’t had the pleasure of being graded on a curve, here is how it works. You take the highest score in the class and that is an A. The lowest score in the class is an F. Everything in the middle is given a letter grade based on a statistical bell curve.

This means that out of 100 people in a class, 2 people get an A and 14 get a B (high performers), 14 people get a D and 2 people get an F (low performers), and 68 people get a C. In fact, 84% get a C or lower (average performers.)

Maybe this works to ensure that only the motivated and able become engineers, I’m not really sure. What grading on a curve does, is compare you to the people around you. No matter what your raw potential, you are placed on the curve relative to your peers. Someone is going to get an F, no matter what. I’m not sure I’m ok with that.

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”

This is a quote from Jim Rohn, an American entrepreneur, author and motivational speaker. He was the recipient of the 1985 National Speakers Association CPAE Award for excellence in speaking, wrote 10 books (that I could find), and was very influential in the personal development industry. And he was wrong.

You are not destined to be the average of anything or be limited by what the people around you do, including the people you spend time with. Before you start writing an email to tell me why I’m wrong, let me be very clear. The people you spend time with DO have significant influence on you. However, there is more to this than a simplistic moralism.

First, the underlying message of this quote is, “stop hanging out with failures.”

How do you determine who is a failure and who is a success? In engineer school the grades were posted in public. It didn’t take long to find out who was setting the curve and who was at the bottom. There wasn’t a line of people waiting to study with the people who were failing. However, they may not have been making that much lower a grade on assignments than others.

If we follow this phrase too closely it leads to a method of managing relationships that is simplistic, lacks empathy and could be dangerous.

The world is full of stories about unlikely friendships between people who initially distrusted and under-appreciated each other. It is only after doing life together that they discover what each has to offer the other and how much richer both their lives are having known each other.

Most of you know that 7 years ago I was fired from my family’s company and took a dark and difficult detour. So “before” that, I was advised by someone who was “successful” and powerful that I should dump some of my friends and let him introduce me to some of his powerful friends. He said I would never get as far in life spending time with people like my friends.

Interestingly, I already had some of his kind of friends, but he thought I was spending too much time with the “wrong” people. When everything went dark for me and I lost my position, my title, my power–just about everything people look for to determine success–those friends I had been advised to dump were the only people who stood by me. They cared for me, helped me, loved on me and are still standing by me to this day.

Those friends may not have been making as much money or had as much influence or power as other people, but they were the people I needed then and still need now. I am not saying that people with money or power or position can’t be wonderful, “stick with you through thick and thin” friends, but I am saying that choosing who you spend time with based on the trappings of a modern definition of success may not work.

We should be careful as leaders not to classify people into groups we want to join and groups we want to avoid. Instead, we should look at people at the individuals they are. Each person has strengths and weaknesses (including me) and should be valued and treated with respect.

Second, the phrase in question is all about me and what I am getting from the relationships I’m in.

 You can both be influenced and influence others. True leaders are concerned with what they are doing to elevate others, not just what they are doing for themselves. Life makes us teachers and students at the same time. Besides, there is no real evidence that hanging out with successful people makes you successful, or that spending time with criminals makes you a criminal. Committing crimes makes you a criminal. Correlation doesn’t mean causation. Spending time with people whose circumstances and lives are far different than yours increases your chances of learning something new.

As I said before, the people you spend time with do influence you, but you still have free will. The spread of smoking was attributed to social influence, but not everyone became a smoker. Also, don’t confuse having influence with influencing. Gathering people to yourself in order to get something in return is very transactional. Besides, surrounding yourself with smart people won’t make you smart. There’s nothing wrong with spending time with smart people, but it is a mistake to think they are the only ones who have something to offer you.

Finally, generosity accelerates learning. When we give to others of our time, talent and treasure we create growth not only in them, but in ourselves too. Your success and growth doesn’t depend on the people you interact with as much as it does on the strength of your relationships. I had deep and open relationships with those friends of mine. The power was in the depth and strength of those relationships.

You are not the average of the five people you spend the most time with. Your potential for growth and true success will be greatly influenced by the depth of your relationships, the value you see in others, and the way you give.

Besides, who wants to be average? In our own unique and needed ways we can all set the curve and be high performers. That’s the Kimray Way.