Stop spending time with people like yourself

It’s a fairly common aspect of life that things are mostly organized into in-groups and out-groups. You see this from the earliest days of the sandbox to hiring practices, business organizations, neighborhoods and communities, and hell — even in families. There are the people you interact with and relate to, and there’s everyone else. Chances are, in a professional and familial context, you probably made the decisions around who was “in” based off like-minded qualities. In sum, most people like to be around others like themselves.

This is somewhat dangerous, though. There’s a far-reaching article on Harvard Business Review that addresses one of the primary challenges of this approach. The article is supposed to be about the works of famous Stanford professor John W. Gardner, and about how the best leaders are people who never stop learning. I agree with all that, and I also think it’s why we need to chase CQ (curiosity quotient) when we hire, but this quote from the article stands out a good deal:

Spence cites as one of his inspirations management guru Jim Collins, who, as a young Stanford professor, sought advice and counsel from his learned colleague John Gardner. What did Spence learn from Collins? “You’re only as young as the new things you do,” he writes, “the number of ‘firsts’ in your days and weeks.” Ask any educator and they’ll agree: We learn the most when we encounter people who are the least like us. Then ask yourself: Don’t you spend most of your time with people who are exactly like you? Colleagues from the same company, peers from the same industry, friends from the same profession and neighborhood?

The crucial part there?

We learn the most when we encounter people who are the least like us.

Here’s a story related to that: in the summer of 2013, I worked for McKesson. That’s a huge health care company — to the point that it’s a Fortune 15 company. I would go to meetings there and often have people tell me, “Well, I don’t know … you’re not a health care guy.” (At the time, I had never worked in any space even remotely similar to health care.) I always found that really funny / interesting / dangerous. I mean, right — I hadn’t worked in the health care space. But does that mean my opinions aren’t valid simply because I’m not from the same arena? In reality, shouldn’t my opinions be more valid because they contain a different context?

Same deal: I worked for ESPN for six years. There are a ton of people running certain sport coverage in Bristol who have been there all their lives. Most of the people that coordinate coverage of NFL, NBA, CBB and CFB have never worked at another place aside from ESPN. Can’t blame ’em — it’s a dream job for many, especially guys. But … if you don’t have context on how things could work at another place (both the good and the bad), how can you really grow in the place you’re at?

Outside perspective is good; that’s actually the reason companies ‘poach’ talent, at least on face.

This has pretty deep contextual ties to ideas around “why silos exist” and “why no one really wants bipartisanship” and “why it’s so hard for people to communicate at work.” Essentially, people tend to stick to what they know and who they know, and that ultimately kind of holds back processes — because as you’re doing that (sticking to what you understand), you’re not really growing and evolving so much yourself. Processes can become stilted in that way, and that’s one aspect of poor communication and silos in a workplace.

So, in sum — do you want a richer, more fulfilling life? Find people who are nothing like you at all and try to spend time with them. It might not get you hired very much — or rather, it might get you told you’re “not a health care guy” — but it can make you a curious, driven life-long learner.


Ted Bauer

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