From the time we are young, we are surrounded by people who are handing us a script to follow. From these reference groups, we learn what “normal” is. From there, our basic human need for acceptance takes over and we want to fit in.

We first learn from our parents how to behave ourselves. Quickly, we learn how to walk the line so we don’t get in trouble. As we grow, we develop multiple reference groups, some general and some very specialized.

Reference groups shape your attitudes and behavior based on what the group considers to be normal. Their habits become yours. They’ll influence your views on health, fashion, finances, politics, religion, education, recreation… you name it. Sometimes they’re validating what we already believe. Sometimes we’re aware of what’s happening.

There are three basic reference groups we turn to. James Clear describes them as The Close, The Many, and The Powerful.

  1. The Close. Jim Rohn famously summed this up: “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Think about who you spend the most time with. This could be family, friends, or coworkers. These people have an enormous influence on you simply because of how much time you spend together. This is why your mother worried so much about who your friends were.
  2. The Many. Our need for Society makes it comfortable to fit in. If everybody else is doing it, we want to do it, too. Then we have something in common. We develop a bond with the Close and feel part of a larger movement with the Many. Popular opinion influences our own opinions more than we want to admit.
  3. The Powerful. We want to be successful. One of the best ways to achieve success yourself is to study successful people and emulate the things they’ve done. (There’s a reason people think Steven Covey wrote a book called The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People.) Every ideal you could aspire to has its role models—and its warnings. We still walk our own path, but we will achieve greater success faster if we study their path.

We have these three reference groups, whether we are intentional about it or not. We will naturally gravitate towards people who are currently like us, and we’ll drift through life together. We will always be surrounded by crowds of people who are trying to fit in and be liked just as much as we are. The media will select its heroes and villains, parade them before us, and expect us to fall in line.

We can and should do better. We can select friends who are going to support us, cheer us on, and lift us up. We can look at the Many and focus on the good and those individuals who are trying to head in the same direction we are and tune out the rest. We can choose as our heroes those who have achieved the success we want and achieved in the right way.

If we can change our definition of normal by changing our reference groups, our attitudes, habits, and behavior will change, leading to a natural change in our results.

Changing a reference group isn’t easy. We have to ask ourselves some tough questions. What really is important to us? What kind of person do we want to be? Are my current reference groups taking me in the right direction? If not, which do you want more—your dreams and ideals or your current social circles?

The good news is that we alone are responsible for the script we follow. Most people that are handing you a script don’t even realize they’re doing it and aren’t going to be offended if you don’t follow it. In fact, they might even be grateful if you helped them challenge their own scripts.

Question: What sense of “what’s normal” would you like to change in your current circles? Share your thoughts in the comments, on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.