It’s pervasive in what you might call the Success Literature: Powerful, accomplished people know something you don’t. Not just about sleep habits and morning routines, but also the company they keep. In short: Successful men aren’t friends with losers. Their time is too precious; they can’t afford to lose the psychic energy that losers cipher off. Some of them go so far as to advise that you should never even spend more than five minutes around someone who drags you down, putting negative people who don’t aid in your success on par with lepers.
Never mind what a “loser” is — no one exactly defines it — but it’s unclear whether it’s actually a judge of character or just a judge of someone’s bank account and career success. A recent Reddit thread touched upon this conundrum in a young man’s life by asking precisely this question: What should you do when most of your friends are going nowhere in life?
In short, his buds want to get high and play video games, and have no aspirations. Many don’t have a job or a license. They don’t care about academics. The original poster doesn’t say why they don’t care about school or ambition. Or indicate what he’d like to do with his life. Just that he doesn’t want to lose his friends. But it’s clear he doesn’t share their apathy, enough so that he’s concerned sticking with them might make him lose his.
Is that how ambition works? Or friendship, for that matter?
We seem to think so. Jim Rohn, a motivational speaker, claims we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with, so if your friends are losers, so are you. Being around people who are generally negative — not the same thing as people who disagree with you, which is a good thing — will thwart your success. If you don’t have friends with any career aspirations, you either don’t have any either (likely why you’re friends, presumably) or will soon stop putting those ambitions first. It’s unclear what comes first: The friends, or the shared loser attitude, but they seem inextricably linked, and apathy is typically regarded as viral in nature — something you can absolutely catch from the bad crowd.
Science backs this up, too, sort of. A roundup of a handful of studies about how the friends we choose, make and keep influence our own career success points to some fairly tight links: Being around hard-working people makes us work harder, too. Being around people with more self-control helps us resist temptations that might derail our goals. Positive, like-minded friendships affect our health, our work environment. And really successful people keep up with multiple networks of different types of people in different sectors that broaden, but also give momentum, to moving forward in careers.
But then there’s the flip side: Success brings fake friends, too, who don’t really want you to do well and will sabotage it at every turn. So what’s a guy to do? Ditch the losers? Or ditch the phony friends that come with success? How can you tell the difference?
Here’s where such business-y advice tends to fall apart. When we’re talking about losers, there are certain qualities I think we’d all agree on. Super-negative people are not good for anyone’s mental health. Anyone trying to sabotage your success is a zero. If the experience of spending time with someone is truly draining, ditch. But beyond that, it’s hard to tell when or where we’re making actual character assessments about the company we keep or if we’re just blindly swallowing the religion of “winning” at life in terms of money, houses, businesses, job titles.
Aren’t there good people who don’t earn a lot, who still want the best for you? Aren’t there supportive friends who don’t want the corner office? Aren’t there people whose idea of success is making a decent living, but at a job that allows them to hang out with friends or family a lot?
That’s kind of the problem with this advice. Luckily, the answer is pretty straightforward: Keep any friend that’s a good friend to you, a valuable friend, which has nothing to do with their income or ambition. Of course, a valuable friendship can mean a lot of things: Supportive, successful, well-connected, good conversationalist, or really good at getting messed up and playing video games.
There is nothing to suggest you can’t keep all those friendships simultaneously, provided they’re true. I spent most of my twenties with my college friends — the ones I did bong hits with all the time to watch 90210 and Melrose Place — and when we weren’t getting stoned, we were at a bar getting tipsy. It got old after a while, and I wondered if I was supposed to ditch them, too. But it wasn’t because they sucked. It was because I expected them to solve all my friendship needs in directions I’d only just gone down. In reality, I needed to branch out and also cultivate a new additional friend group of people who shared my new interest, who wanted to do journalism and write.
It is not a zero-sum game — very little of life is. And yet, nearly all “life hack” literature is zero-sum. Here’s a simple answer! Do this one thing! Just stop doing this other thing! Buy this! Not that! Be around winners! Losers are poison! Wait, what’s a winner again?
The movie Good Will Hunting is actually a decent example of the tension between “loser” friends and the sparkle of new successful ones. Will Hunting (Matt Damon) is a 20-year-old working-class genius who, while sweeping floors at MIT, just so happens to get discovered for the mathematical wunderkind he is. Given the chance to become a long-division hero for the rest of his life, and nab a new babe girlfriend on the way up who happens to be a Harvard genius herself, he nearly throws it all away on account of his loyalty to his working-class roots and “loser” friends in Boston doing construction.
As if the choice is one or the other with no in-between.
In a pivotal scene, Will explains that he doesn’t want to escape his poor life, because he likes it! He intends to spend the rest of his life with these losers, doing construction. “Be neighbors, have little kids, f***in’ take them to Little League up at Foley Field.”
His buddy Chuckie Sullivan (Ben Affleck), one of those construction townies, isn’t having it. “Look, you’re my best friend, so don’t take this the wrong way,” he says. “In 20 years, if you’re still living here, coming over to my house to watch the Patriots game, still working construction, I’ll f***ing kill you. That’s not a threat, that’s a fact. I’ll f***ing kill you.”
His reasoning is that it’s insane to squander talent and the opportunity for more, and especially insane to expect your friends who have no such options to applaud that choice.
“You don’t owe it to yourself,” he says. “You owe it to me. Tomorrow I’m going to wake up and I’ll be 50 and I’ll still be doing this sh*t. And that’s alright; that’s fine. But you’re sitting on a winning lottery ticket and you’re too much of a p*ssy to cash it in. And that’s bullsh*t.”
Of course, most of our career choices are not that dramatic or simple or zero-sum either; to say nothing of our conversations with our high school buds. But for our purposes, the point is this: If we’re following the advice to cut bait on every loser, Chuckie Sullivan would be the first to go on our way to sweeter, richer destinations. But he’s 10 times the friend. You go, Ben Affleck. There’s nothing loser-y about having your friend’s back no matter what and wishing him the best.
If this is your problem — your old friends ain’t going anywhere, but they still love you unconditionally — you have no problem. The secret to having it all is knowing when to go drink beer with your loser friends, hoping they never find out you think they’re losers because you’re such a massive golden success.