There is a great song that captures some of what I want to talk about here: Ray Charles singing “It should have been me”. Uncle Ray was always a few steps ahead of the rest of us.
From Solomon Asch’s famous line experiments in the 1950s to Rene Girard’s theory of mimetic desire to John Turner’s work on social identity, there has been much analysis done on peer group dynamics. I’m not going to rehash it all here, but the short of it is that human behavior is incredibly susceptible to influence from the social context.
I spend much of my mentorship time hectoring people to be conscious of that influence and thoughtful about its impacts on their decisions. I usually tie this to examples of my own relentlessly dumb decisions over the years. In this essay, I want to share some thoughts on peer group dynamics.
What’s the problem?
We measure so many things against our peer group. What we wear; what we eat; where we want our kids to be educated. Where we live; how we speak (and think); how we behave.
Some peer group observations and interactions are intrinsically good. One of my good friends is my healthcare/fitness guru, and I somewhat blindly do whatever the heck he is doing. But I do so because I trust him and know that a lot of reading and research goes into his decisions. Not because I want to “keep up” with him.
But many peer group influences are not good. And it is really hard to break free.
Very often our choice of work — the first job after college, for instance, which is an enormously consequential decision — is driven by our peer group. What is everyone else trying to do? Let me do the same thing!
But maybe working at ABC firm in XYZ industry or getting on the PhD track or whatever else is really not right for you — or, at minimum, you have not been reflective enough about the decision.
And in each industry we operate in — VC to tech to fast food to academia to climate — we are influenced to an extraordinary degree by what is happening in our peer group. This person raised a bigger fund; that person has more Twitter followers; this founder raised money at a higher valuation; that company has a cooler product; this postdoc has had more peer reviewed papers published; and so on.
And there is our life outside of work. This person has a nicer house; that person has a cooler car; this person has more awesome parties; that person goes to more awesome parties; this person’s kids are in a better school; and so on.
Social media exacerbates the issue because it has had the very peculiar effect of greatly expanding what we think of as our peer group. Being on LinkedIn, for example, means that you may have thousands of people that are now in an amorphous “peer group.” It is inevitable that at any given moment someone is going to appear to have it better than you along some dimension.
This state of affairs leaves most of us perpetually unsatisfied. In many cases we are actually aware of the fact that we’re allowing peer group dynamics to influence us in damaging ways — yet are unable to set these feelings aside.
As I’ve written elsewhere, I’ve spent most of my life subscribing to all the usual norms in our society for what success means, norms that I arrived at by looking at my peer group. It is only now, after having done a great deal of reading on climate and consumption, that I am taking drastic steps to change my own behavior.
It took me 50 years to realize that the things that have given me the most joy have all been things that cost next to nothing. The reading habit I’ve had since I was a child; the non-profits that I’ve been involved with over the years; a great course that opened my mind; rolling about in the grass with my terribly untrained dog. These things have nothing to do with a peer group.
The next generation
I know a lot of rich, unhappy people. I am not sure what they really want; perhaps they don’t either. But we all learned a long time ago that material goods doesn’t buy you happiness. If you live in a perfectly nice house, will one twice the size make you happier in any way? Yet our peer groups help define norms, and the norm in our society is that bigger is better.
We pass these insecurities on to the next generation. Our kids look at how we are and how we behave and seek to emulate us. Our younger colleagues/friends/passers by look at us and, especially if it is a relationship of power, look to emulate us too. And so the cycle continues and never gets broken.
Nothing in here should be taken as a criticism of ambition and drive. I have both, and these things are often valuable and important for humanity as a whole. What I am questioning here is the “why” and the “for what.”
But how do you fix these issues? The best way, and it is easier than it sounds, is to be intentional and selective about your peer group. It is impossible to do that when you are five years old; becomes easier when you are 20; and if you are 40 or older, it is easy to do if you put your mind to it.
Death equalizes the peer group. We all have very different lives — but we are all going to be equally dead. The question then arises: what is a meaningful and purposeful life?
What that means is different for different people, of course. What I can say is that your peer group won’t matter when you are dead. Your descendants aren’t going to be sitting there making a scorecard of how you performed versus your business school classmates (also, they will ALL be equally dead!).
My current operating hypothesis is that a meaningful life is formed largely by helping other people who are less advantaged. I’m trying.