Creative Leadership

The Problem With Surrounding Yourself With Smart People

I grew up in the South and spent my early years watching buddies hang out their entire lives. Usually these buddies were picked because they wouldn’t challenge each other, push each other, or inspire each other. You probably know some people like this. They’re buddies that do nothing but “hang out.”

So I decided early on that I wanted to do the opposite – to surround myself with smarter, more talented, and more driven people than me.  And for most of my life, my friends have done some amazing things. They produce movies, write successful books, run big companies, perform on Broadway, and make a great name for themselves. I’m incredibly proud of them and learn from them everyday. And in the process, they’ve inspired me to keep working, push myself more, and accomplish more than I ever dreamed.

But honestly, there is a drawback you should know before trying this strategy.

When you surround yourself with successful people, they achieve success – and sometimes you don’t.  The hard truth is, it’s sometimes a challenge to see their career skyrocket, and yours get stuck. I’m not talking about a pity party here, but from time to time you do sit back and wonder what happened to your potential. You remind yourself that everyone’s different and that God has a plan for you. But they sign new movie deals, their book sales go up, or they sell their company for millions, and you’re just watching from the sidelines.

This isn’t a blog post with the “3 Secrets to Overcome Feelings of Failure.” I truly don’t have an answer. Maybe it’s just time for a vacation.  But the big question is – would I do it again?  Would I rather be friends with people who aren’t going anywhere in life, so I can look and feel better, or be friends with motivated people who might make me look like a loser by comparison?

I have to admit, I’ll pick the motivated people every time. The benefits of friendship, challenging my thinking, and showing me options I never thought about are more than worth the occasional feelings of inadequacy by comparison.

Plus, while it’s not about keeping score, I do believe God has a plan out there somewhere. Have I missed it?

I’m not dead yet, so I’m still exploring.

What are your solutions when your career seems to stagnate while those around you do well?

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  1. I was the pastor of a church where the median age was around 60. i was in my early 50s and my words to my wife were “I ain’t dead yet. I have too much to offer.” Fortunately, she agreed. I much rather prefer to be around friends who are going somewhere than those who are stagnant. My tag line: Live the Adventure!

  2. Yes, it’s happening to me right now. I help everyone else be successful (I’m in HR), coach, train, find ways to get people increases, defer to everyone, and help salespeople become successful while I’m stuck. But, I still go after the recruits that will have fast tracked careers and are what’s best for the company. Do I want to be around those very successful people? Yes. Does it feel good? Not all the time, no sirreee bob. I wonder all the time what happened to my potential, or if I even have any.

    1. While some people find their purpose in helping others (which is wonderful), I do understand the need to step out yourself at some point. Great thoughts Nancy…

  3. I spend years around my “buddies” and it left me 10 years behind all the “smart” people. I am still play catch up in many ways. But, I made those choices back then and I have to pay for that. I’m disappointed yes, but there are real consequences for the choices one makes. I now try to surround myself with people that are going places and that see value in creativity. I am not close to what I was and I am not close to all I want to be or accomplish.

  4. I have often wondered about this very thing as I too spent time with “buddies” (and, I a buddy in return), but even then God was challenging me. And although I certainly missed opportunities to better dispose my self for the measure of success I may select today, tomorrow or the day after, even more than the recognition that we benefit from being around people actively trying to better themselves, I am comforted to know that finally God’s definition for my success is all that matters. And, while I will certainly try to achieve the success I desire, if I fail, I remember that God wants my greatest success and so long as I stay on board he will not fail.

  5. In his book Medium Raw, Anthony Bourdain explores the idea of integrity versus “selling out”… how some colleagues seem to be more successful but have seemingly prostituted themselves. One reason is because they continue to need to expand, to provide growth opportunities for their staff and fortunes for their children. Another reason is that some people are just more motivated than others. He cites the case of Mario Batali, for whom “nothing ever seems to be enough for the man. Above and beyond the fact that he raises millions of dollars for various charities — including his own — he’s clearly not in it for the money. Always expanding, always starting new partnerships, trying new concepts. In Mario’s case, I think, it’s about ego — and the fact that he’s got a restless mind. It’s not, and never was, enough — or even interesting — to Batali to make money.”

  6. Hard to say. Who “surrounds” themselves with anyone today? How do you do that unless you are a big drinker, smoke cigars, host a lot of parties or go out to eat a lot? Growing up, my choices were rather limited with the draft in 1967 when I graduated high school. Vietnam virtually shaped my future until I met Jesus 7 years later. I can only claim any success I have ever had with applying biblical principles I learned as a babe in Christ. I was at that point surrounded with like-minded believers for the next 12 years, but any success I had then could only be attributed to allowing God & the Lord Jesus to direct my steps. So, I didn’t choose who to hang with relative to however successful or slothful they were, but only as I was directed. Because of that I have become enabled to teach others also that success can be achieved regardless of the successfulness of those around you. It may not be the success that the world boasts about but it certainly beats standing on the corner with a cardboard sign! Provocative article Phil!-Fred S Wolfe

  7. Also, one must first definite success for oneself. I would rather be around people who motivate and encourage me, but I was “just a mom” for over 30 years and have since gone back to college and received teaching credentials. My success (legacy) is my children, grandchildren, and now my students. I have endured lots of criticism for sitting at home and doing “nothing”. Any stay at home moms (dads) know how truly difficult (and rewarding) this job is. I seriously have two books I want to write one explaining what you learn from staying home and the other the lessons all teachers learn (still researching this one).
    Be true to yourself, as you said be happy for others success and know you are doing what you should be doing. It is all on God’s time anyway, which is one of the hardest lessons to learn. Not an excuse for not working hard, but HE knows your heart and has the perfect plan. You are doing great and I admire your work and drive, even way back in high school. Did I just say that? LOL

  8. I can completely relate to your blog and am honestly thankful you voiced it. I am one who hangs out with ‘smart’ people and have watched many accomplish great things. It seems that my own greatness has not yet been seen, however I know I have contributed to the success of the others. I think one of the challenges of surrounding yourself with great people is maintaining a team player mindset. We are all on the same team. If we are Christians, then we need to understand that we all need each other to further the Kingdom. I really don’t think God compares us to one another nor do I think He loves the the smarter ones more than the other ones. I think He loves to see us explore and use all that He has given us in this life. He is our Father and He delights in us discovering all that He put in us. We really need to stop seeing ourselves as individuals and build up ourselves as a team. You, Phil, have done a great job!! You are a great example of a team player! Keep it up!

  9. First off, LOVE the vulnerability of this post. So good for me to read.

    Seeing people next to me grow successful always challenges my poverty/abundance mentality to stay congruent with abundance reality of the kingdom. The brutal truth is that whether I feel encouraged or discouraged by their success, knowing successful people will NEVER hurt my odds at personal success, it can only serve to better them. Even if every person I know grew successful as I didn’t, it would only serve to drasitically increase my odds of success…despite any internal turmoil I could feel as a result.

    That being said, the true thing I know I have to keep myself accountable is to seeing the “thing-of-God” birthed in my life…the burning aspect of His heart that He’s looking for people to carry for the earth. It’s not contingent on natural success, and likely will cause me to, like many modern heroes of the faith, actually give up wild success the more it comes alive in my life.

      1. Thanks.

        Have you ever connected with Sean Bolz, by the way? He started a church called Expresison58 in Glendale. He’s a good friend of Bethel Church here in Redding and has a way of reaching culture in a very un-churchy way.

  10. Where do you find motivated people to surround yourself with when you have lived a life surrounded with unmotivated people?

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