There’s a theory that I call “the five chimps theory”. In Zoology, you can predict the mood and behavior patterns of any chimp by which five chimps they hang out with the most. Choose your five chimps carefully.
There are two kinds of evolution: the genetic kind and the cultural kind.
Both shape our mindset, and the cultural kind has gotten a lot faster.
Genes do not determine your destiny. They determine your areas of opportunity. Our environment determines the suitability of our genes and the utility of our natural talents. When our environment changes, so do the qualities that determine success. The people at the top of any competitive field are not only well trained, they are also well suited to the task. And this is why, if you want to be truly great, selecting the right place to focus is crucial.
Most of us make decisions in an environment where it is very hard for us to behave rationally. The cultural environment is about politics and signaling, not about putting people in a position to succeed. The physical environment is about business and distraction, not focus and thinking. Neither of these environments line up with the good decision making.
Our environment varies with culture and social norms (birthplace, upbringing, background, heritage, ideology, religion, political system, and world view). You don’t need a totalitarian figure to realize that you are oppressed. Oppression is manifested in different ways. You are oppressed through social norms, through limiting beliefs, through facile and prosaic views. Only awareness and intellectual depth can battle this.
You can aspire to change the culture of an environment, but don’t overlook how the culture will change you. The culture is kind of an operating system, and the operating system stays intact even as you put different programs through it. Few of us are immune to the values of the people around us. The culture is so strong that people are absorbed into it and become part of it and do it willingly.
The idea of progress itself is a relatively new. Before then, most cultures had the opposite idea of ancestor worship: that our ancestors were the greatest people who ever lived, that all the important knowledge was revealed to them, and all we should do is study them.
How much does it matter how environment affects you?
Empirically, the answer seems to be: a lot. When it comes to making decisions, your environment matters. The great viruses of our time spread through minds, not through bodies. Who you are with and where you are will create the environment that you are in, which will shape what you are like much more than anything else. Success is largely the standards you set for yourself. The people you hang around. How you spend your time. The information you consume. The habits you choose. The food you eat. Most of our standards are inherited by chance nurture: our environment.
You might think that if you had enough strength of mind to do great things, you’d be able to transcend your environment. Where you live should make at most a couple percent difference. But if you look at the historical evidence, it seems to matter more than that. Most people who did great things were clumped together in a few places where that sort of thing was done at the time. We like to believe that we are in charge that our brains are only influenced by our conscious thoughts. That sounds amazing, but it’s wrong. Our conscious brain is much smaller than our subconscious brain. You are a product of your environment. Your actions are a consequence of your thoughts. Your thoughts are a consequence of what you consume. You become what you consume. And in the modern age, what you consume is largely a consequence of how you select and refine your circle.
If you think you can avoid being influenced by the people around you, think it again. It’s not so much that you do whatever an environment expects of you, but that you get discouraged when no one around you cares about the same things you do. There’s an imbalance between encouragement and discouragement like that between gaining and losing money. Most people overvalue negative amounts of money: they’ll work much harder to avoid losing a dollar than to gain one. Similarly, although there are plenty of people strong enough to resist doing something just because that’s what one is supposed to do where they happen to be, there are few strong enough to keep working on something no one around them cares about. It’s in the more chaotic fields that it helps most to be in a great environment: you need the encouragement of feeling that people around you care about the kind of work you do, and since you have to find peers for yourself, you need the much larger intake mechanism of a great environment.
Maybe the Internet will change things further. Maybe one day the most important community you belong to will be a virtual one, and it won’t matter where you live physically. But I wouldn’t bet on it. The physical world is very high bandwidth, and some of the ways environment sends you messages are quite subtle. An environment speaks to you mostly by accident — in things you see through windows, in conversations you overhear. It’s not something you have to seek out, but something you can’t turn off. The conversations you overhear tell you what sort of people you’re among.
Be the designer of your world and not merely the consumer of it.
Free will is overrated and our willpower is overstated. We’re actually much more influenced by the environments that we’re put in. Instead of relying completely on the willpower and independence, think about how to build better systems and create the environment where you can do your best work.
One of the most effective things you can do to build better mindset and habits is to join a culture where your desired behavior is the normal behavior. New mindset and habits seem achievable when you see others doing them every day. It is critical to savagely and surgically arrange your environment in a way that is in accordance with where you want to go.
Be the designer of your world and not merely the consumer of it. Most people live in a world others have created for them. But you can alter the spaces where you live and work to increase your exposure to positive cues and reduce your exposure to negative ones. Environment design allows you to take back control and become the architect of your life.