You are the average of the five people you surround yourself with.
It’s funny, hey. You can hear the same message 100 times in your life, but it will only land once you are ready to receive it.
A while ago, I went to a talk by John McGrath. He is quite an exceptional individual (among other things, he can break spanners with his bare hands). He has had an interesting journey to be a top sportsman and coach, and there were a lot of nuggets in the talk. But the thing that really landed with me was when he said: “You are the average of the five people you surround yourself with.” I think he was saying it with reference to some fallen heroes he had coached, who surrounded themselves with the wrong people once they got to the top. Not an uncommon story, I suppose.
But it made me think.
Some years ago, I hiked the Cordillera Blanca in northern Peru. The Andes stretches for thousands of miles across the continent, and this particular region is famous for its remote, rugged terrain. Our four-day hike would culminate in us crossing the Santa Cruz pass, at 4750m of altitude the highest I have been since hiking Kilimanjaro a few years prior.
I remember it well. The day before going over the pass, it was New Year's Day. We were camped outside of an old abandoned stone church, and it was bitterly cold. There were a few porters and donkeys, our guide, and about 2 or 3 other hikers with me. We all sat around, not talking, alone with our thoughts. I took the time to write down reflections on the year.
And I felt lonely. At that particular juncture, I had spent a lot of time with various people that had become good friends. But I had cause to doubt whether the friendships were real, if our values were aligned. I wondered if I could really trust them, and whether the new year would see a dissolution of those relationships.
The next day was brutal. Hectic weather, ice-cold winds, and a mist rolled in that all but blinded us. I did the most stupid thing of my life, which was to take a break while the main group walked ahead. I like to take a rest and read my book. This was the wrong moment for that, I can tell you. Suddenly I found myself on the mountain, with no clear view of the path or the pass. And I felt a moment of panic.
Fortunately, the mist cleared and I could see the access point to the pass. Then a whistle told me they were waiting for me, and I was so so glad when I found the Frenchman and my tentmate at the top. On the other side of the range was a magnificent view of a crystal blue lake and the campsite way in the distance. Frenchie and I celebrated by having a dram of whiskey, and then made our way down before the altitude really started to tell.
The group was all strong hikers. This is why our tour guide suggested we go big on the next day, and get back to the town a day early. It was a lovely last-day hike, filled with laughter and stories, even though we did double the time and the distance. But we were up for it.
That’s my point, I suppose. In cycling, your race time is often determined by the strength of the other riders in your group (and how well it works together). On hikes, the relative strength and speed of the group will determine how far you go every day. In group sports like rugby or football, teams that have strong cohesion but relatively modest individual members will often outshine teams with superstars.
There’s a wonderful tool we use in my coaching called the Rocket Ship Exercise. A Jim Collins (he of Good to Great) classic, it asks the question: If the world is going to end, and you need to go on a mission to Mars with five or six key members, who would you take. And why? What are the values and qualities that would make you take THOSE people? And that is the first step towards articulating the value system that you, and your organization, hold dear.
Those people that I cared about, that cold New Year's Eve? None of them make my rocket ship these days. The reasons I doubted them were only amplified over time, and they eventually stopped being present in my life. I have now learned to be intentional in my friendships and relationships, and to be very careful about how – and with who – I spend my time.
It’s been quite some time since I felt alone and isolated on top of the mountain. I am thankful to have incredible people in my life, both personally and professionally. It has happened because I have been quite intentional about it, and putting shared values first.
Who would be your team on your Mission to Mars?