Social Surrounding: Maybe You Should Change Friends Or Move Away


What you will be will depend on the perspective you have. Where you go in life will depend on how you see things and who and what you feel connected to. — Principles by Ray Dalio

Before my San Francisco saga happened, I never realized the importance of my social surroundings. And this is why San Francisco changed my life.

What Are Social Surroundings?

Social surroundings — or you can call it social environment — are not just the physical surroundings you are in. To me, it’s more abstract. And here is my definition of it:

  • Macro view: The environment or culture from where you grew up or live in now
  • Micro view: The people you spend most of your time with.

It is more or less the elements that impact your daily behaviors, mindsets, decision-making, relationship-dealing, and beliefs. Most of the time, that impact is unconscious.

In the macro definition: you soak in the culture you grew up with like a sponge. Or if you live in another city long enough, it can cast some spells on you, too.

In Japanese culture, an office man needs to have an “after-work drink” with coworkers. His wife will probably be worried about his social life in the company if he doesn’t do so. That’s the cultural norm and almost an unspoken requirement.

In the micro definition: it is no doubt that how much influence people surrounding you can bring, especially when you meet these people every day.

This is why back in high school, friends in the same little group are usually more alike. They start hanging out because they share similarities, but they also become more similar by spending time together.

How Important Can It Be?

You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with — Jim Rohn

This sentence mostly sums it up. You imitate the behaviors, beliefs or even habits of the people around you.

When each of your friends is using Instagram, you often end up joining them voluntarily or they convince you to do so. It’s the effect of FOMO (fear of missing out).

I bet you have heard of this prevalent old proverb — When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Based on this saying, you can tell that there is a certain pattern of how people at the same geographical place act and believe because they possess a similar cultural background.

The same will happen to you and your own culture.

So you are not only the 5 people you spend the most time with, but you are also where you live.

What If I’m Always In The Same Social Surroundings?

I can give you a concise answer:

It’s dangerous.

It’s dangerous for not having any diversity in your social surroundings. Because everyone around you is doing or believing in the same thing, you tend to mistaken it as the norm. Even if it’s not true or it’s something wrong, you won’t be aware of it.

This happened to me after I moved to Hong Kong for a while.

Hong Kong Confines Me

When you compete very intensely, you get to be good at the thing you’re competing on. But then you often don’t ask enough critical questions about whether the thing you are competing on is really worth doing? — Peter Thiel (The founding CEO of PayPal)

Hong Kong is a really job-oriented place. It’s a metropolitan city that keeps everyone busy.

(This is what it looks like at after-work rush hours)

As students, everyone is eager to get a part-time job or an internship during the so-called “summer vacation”. (Yup! Doing more work when it’s meant for a break.) And being signed up by a company before your graduation is the ultimate goal.

Students in Hong Kong are almost required to find internships in EVERY summer break since your freshman year. If you don’t, there is a big chance that people will ask you “Hmm, so what are you going to do?” (with a sense of judgment)

Doing internships is not a bad thing for sure, but they push it to an extreme that they don’t even question it anymore. You find an internship simply for the sake of having an internship.

I became like that. Everyone around me was doing it, so I joined them. Meanwhile, I stopped questioning “Why am I doing this? Is this even the job I want to be doing?”

Basically, I fell into what Cal Newport called — Busyness as a proxy for productivity. I seemed productive by doing an internship, but after all, I just looked busy. But I didn’t care at that time: I just wanted an internship.

You Are Probably Confined In Somewhere, But You Don’t Know It

If you transform each tech person on the planet into a red dot and put them onto a map, Silicon Valley will be “a huge red block” without any space left among the dots. When it’s replete with a high density of talented tech workers, what’s the disadvantage of it?

They will use a similar mindset to solve problems

People see things from what they pay attention to. And your environment compounding with people around you directs your attention.

As the academics in universities will pondering on things in an academic way, the monoculture in Wall Street blinds what they believe (Listen to Sallie Krawcheck’s story with Reid Hoffman) — It’s the power of groupthink.

The effect is amplified when people in the same environment came from the same school.

You Need Diversity

If you have never encountered any other cultures, you will see the world as if it’s just the size of your country. Everyone on the planet is the same. You will live like a primitive who doesn’t know how to play Rock Paper Scissors. (See my other post to learn why you might have become a primitive.)

Have you ever heard of stories about outliers breaking into an industry without any related experience or education? How did they do it? Or why people would want to hire someone like this?

There are countless possible answers, but one could be that outliers provide a different perspective. They see things differently from those who are already working in the industry.

They are a fresh breeze coming into a suffocating environment. They need diversity in their environment while the environment also needs them to make it diverse, so as you.

How To Have A Social Surrounding You Want

We have 2 lotteries in life: where we were born and who are our parents. We can’t choose or change them. They were given based on our luck.

But meanwhile, they are also the factors determining our primary social surroundings. And here are ways to change them:

1. Escaping

Before going to San Francisco, the culture I grew up with never teaches me that I have the option to learn or create things by myself. We know the option is there, but it has never been considered. People around me will only want to work at Apple, they won’t be thinking of building the next Apple.

In contrast, what people believe in San Francisco is at the totally opposite side of a spectrum. That was what affected my thinking.

Moving to a place where its culture fits your personality is the best way. If you are a student, having an overseas exchange program gives you a teaser of how it feels like. (This was my case.)

But sometimes it’s hard to change our social surroundings with a finger snap. We can’t just move to another place as we please, so here come other solutions.

2. Outreaching

Most people’s social circles only contain relationships they get effortlessly, including family, neighbors, classmates, coworkers. You have been passively put together under the same environment.

Sometimes you need extra efforts to “earn” a relationship with people you wish to be in your life. Gladly, with the internet, you can make a connection with literally anyone you want.

Don’t be afraid to reach out or even cold-email people. I tried to cold-email a lot of people, and you can’t imagine how kind people can be. What will be the worst-case scenario? Nothing more than just being ignored.

3. Absorbing

Let’s say you are studying business major. You decide to change your life path and start pursuing your new goal as being a graphic designer. But no one in your social surroundings is doing designing. What should you do?

You need to search for what kind of information that a majority of designers are consuming, including:

  1. Books
  2. Blogs 
  3. Magazines
  4. Podcasts (like Design Matters)
  5. Tools
  6. Communities/forums/platforms (Like Dribbble)

Instead of spending time on listening to what your social surroundings are telling you, investing time on absorbing information from a social environment you want can provide a higher ROI (return on investment). 

You replace the useless information. But just be careful with information overload.

4. Imitating

Remember the quote from Jim Rohn — You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with. Note that he says “the 5 people”, not “the 5 friends.

So if you don’t have a desirable social surrounding or there isn’t anyone impressive enough around you, you create one or find them yourself. They don’t have to be your friends or physically in your life.

You do it by consuming every form of knowledge that’s out in the public and imitate them. 

Successful people have a more public life than ever. They have blogs, write books, own a podcast, and attend interviews.

Understand their thinking, good habits and experience. You will find a formative pattern. Extract the parts which make them stand out and imitate them, just as how you imitate the action from your close groups.

Final Thoughts

The influence of our social environment is significant, but the impact happens in a relatively chronic and deep way. Just as how smoking leads to lung cancer: It happens quietly with no pain, but once its damage is too big to neglect, it’s already too late.

Similarly, if you don’t pay attention to what your environment is whispering in your ear, trying to control you, you end up seeing things the way your social surroundings tell you to. And leads to a life you don’t want.

TL;DR? Here Is The Takeaway

What you will be will depend on the perspective you have, but what perspective you have will depend on your social surroundings.