Topgrade Your Five — The Power Of Playing Up

This week, we have a special guest edition of
The TwentyPercenter newsletter from KellerINK author
Jay Papasan. If you like what you read, subscribe here!

Spiral staircase photo by Chuttersnap

“We create our buildings and then they create us. Likewise, we construct our circle of friends and our communities and then they construct us.” – Frank Lloyd Wright 

I’ve been playing up my whole life. Growing up in Memphis where my dad had made a name for himself in business, I was “Larry’s son.” I trailed my outgoing sister in high school and teachers often said, “Oh, you’re Jan’s little brother.” My friends growing up were all sports, honor roll, and student government leaders. When the school administrator called to share I was being photographed for senior superlatives that day, I was home sick with a fever. Shocked, I threw on a button-down and tie and wandered into the school lobby. The photographer started pairing people up as “Most Likely to Succeed,” “Best Dressed,” etc... Pretty soon everyone was paired up but me. The admin later sheepishly apologized. She was so sure I was in the mix she called me in. But I wasn’t. Cue the awkward silence. My buddy Jay Hines quipped, “I guess you’re Most Likely to Almost Be a Senior Superlative.”

Hopefully, this didn’t trigger any cringe-worthy high school memories for you. That was the moment I realized I’d made a habit of “playing up.” I gravitated toward individuals who regularly operated outside my comfort zone. While it hadn’t yet borne fruit, it would.


Stretching is Good Stuff Copyright 2020 Indexed and Jessica Hagy
Stretching is Good Stuff Copyright 2020 Indexed and Jessica Hagy


To be thorough, I should also note I “married up” with Wendy and “partnered up” with Gary Keller. In short, I know a little something about punching above my weight class.

Playing up can be defined as choosing an environment that provides a higher level of challenge. When I was working with Mia Hamm on Go for the Goal, she talked about playing on an adult men’s team in high school. She still scored but spent a lot more time being knocked around and beaten. Her coaches understood that she needed a bigger challenge than her high school teammates presented. Mia played up. Similarly, Gary shared that he grew up playing chess with his friend, Kim. He almost always lost. As a result, Gary assumed he was a mediocre player. That changed in college when he started winning a lot more than he lost. Kim went on to become a champion chess player. Gary didn’t know it, but he had been playing up.

You’ve probably seen the ubiquitous quote attributed to Jim Rohn: “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” If Rohn is wrong, it’s because he understated the phenomenon.

In The ONE Thing, we shared research by Nicholas A. Christakis, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., and James H. Fowler, Ph.D. that showed that if a friend became obese, you were 45% likely to get your own love handles in subsequent years. Shockingly, a friend of a friend becoming obese made you 20% more likely. The influence of our networks shows up far beyond our immediate circle. Since we published our book, Christakis and Fowler have replicated that study around taking up smoking and relative happiness.

And this matters in business as well. Probably the most famous example is the “PayPal Mafia.” This select group of PayPal coworkers went on to found such unicorns as Affirm, Kiva, LinkedIn, Palantir, SpaceX, Tesla, Yammer, Yelp, and YouTube.

Nothing will impact your trajectory in life more than the five people you spend the most time with. Today is the best day to topgrade your five.

People didn’t used to have the options we have today for topgrading our networks. The conventional paths were country clubs, charity work, and the chamber of commerce. And honestly they still work. Today, there are many coaching and mastermind groups to choose from. They may be costly but offer more curated networks than clubs centered on golf courses, squash courts, and cocktail hours.

When Wendy and I started our wealth-building journey, we couldn't afford these. One of our first steps was to start hosting “Millionaire Meals.” Potlucks where the price of admission was a few casseroles and chiantis. Friends gathered to share our journeys and ambitions around money. While we didn’t abandon old pals, we did start investing more and more time with people on similar or higher trajectories. Our favorite gatherings were when we had the smallest net worth and the least knowledge. Places that, while uncomfortable, forced us to play up.

Here’s the secret. Successful people are generous with their time and knowledge if you respect their time. Ask smart questions. Listen to their answers. Offer gratitude and take action. They love making an impact. And you can be part of their ROI. One of the best aspects of the culture at Keller Williams has been how truly generous that network tends to be.

Wherever you happen to be, start playing up.

One question to ponder in your thinking time: When I consider my personal five, where should I start subtracting and who should I start adding?

Make an Impact!

Jay Papasan​

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