Choose Your Friends and Business Associates Wisely

In a short article in Message #1045, I said this about the importance of the way you spend your time: “Remember, what you do most of in life is what you become — whether you like it or not.” And when Porter read that, it reminded him of the summer he spent as a kid slaving away for Hiram at minimum wage. He told me the story over beer and steaks at the Owl Bar in Baltimore . . . Roughhousing with friends, Porter had broken a neighbor’s sliding-glass door.

To pay for the repair, he worked for three months at Hiram’s warehouse. On the last day, through the window of his massive Lincoln Continental, Hiram handed him the final $80 he needed to square the debt. “You’re not the kinda kid who gets into that kind of trouble,” the old man said. “Be smart when you pick your friends, because you will become them.” Hiram drove away — but his words left a big impression. There is a great deal of truth to what old Hiram said. The people with whom we surround ourselves have a great deal to do with what we become.

This is an especially important consideration in business, where we come into contact with all sorts of characters — brilliant and motivated, brilliant but lazy, dull but dedicated, dull and lazy. In thinking back on my professional life, I can see relationships that — however beneficial they may have seemed at the outset — eventually turned into sticky, swampy problems. Had I asked myself before getting involved with any of these people “Is this someone who sees the world of business the way I do?” I might have avoided a good deal of stress and, in some cases, saved a bundle of money.

The point Porter made is a good one: As a general principle (though not a hard-and-fast rule), over time, you end up being more like the people you associate with. And so, it’s smart to choose very carefully the people you spend a lot of time with. The lesson works with friendships too, but the criteria are somewhat different. In business, it makes sense to search out people who have strengths that complement your own. You want to develop relationships with the smart, the hardworking, and the well-connected.

In friendship, a person’s attributes can’t be measured in terms of how he might affect your professional growth and prosperity. What matters in friendship is more malleable (see “Word to the Wise,” below) and subtle. In all cases, you want, I’d think, to associate yourself with people who are relatively trustworthy and honest. (I say “relatively” because I believe only the phoniest and scariest of people pretend to be 100% pure in these virtues.) And for friendship especially, it seems to me that you should want to associate with people who have the same basic idea that you have about what is good and true in life.

In a note to me following our evening together at the Owl Bar, Porter wrote, “I’ve picked my friends by finding people I wanted to be more like. People that had qualities and virtues I admired. It worked. Whenever I’ve succeeded in life, it has been because of my friends. My friends have taught me business skills, life skills, and, time after time, have put me in a position to succeed.” Does that mean you should never spend time with “friends in low places”? Of course not. And I know that Porter would agree with me.

Two short blocks from my office, just across the railroad tracks, sits O’Connor’s Pub. The boys from Jiu Jitsu and some members of the ETR team are there on Fridays for pizza and beer. It’s an unassuming place, a neighborhood hangout with an above-average percentage of blue-collar bullshit artists, drifters, and lovable losers. I certainly don’t want to become a character like T-Bone, the ex-con car mechanic, or Crazy Dave — but, frankly, I enjoy their company.

And sometimes, when I’m at a swanky affair, surrounded by wealthy and powerful people, I find myself wondering what the boys at O’Connor’s are up to. I have a wide array of friendships — and I’m not going to give any of them up. I don’t suggest you give yours up either. At this point in my life, I am what I am — and the people I associate with aren’t going to change me. But when you’re young and/or you’re just starting out in business, it is a good idea to take some extra time in thinking about the other guy’s character when you form a new relationship.