Is Your Posse Affecting Your Passion?

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The following pronouncement might not come as a big surprise to you:

Who you hang out with matters.

Entrepreneur, author, and motivational speaker Jim Rohn has gone so far as to say that, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”

In fact, not only can it affect your physical and psychological health, it literally can impact what you believe and who you become (more on that in a minute).

Negativity in College

As a college professor, I definitely see a lot of negativity in my students. Although many are happy, it seems as if a good (and growing) number of them are bothered by or even riddled with anxiety, stress, and even apathy. In fact, as I discussed in a previous blog post:

“A report published by Dr. Jean Twenge a number of years ago supports this observation. Twenge found that children in the 1980s and early 1990s showed levels of anxiety that were equivalent to child psychiatric patients in the 1950s (and I’m sure the level of anxiety has probably increased even more in the last 20 years).”

In addition to increases in various types of psychological problems, I’ve also noticed (or maybe just become more aware of) more and more students who seem to be pursuing careers they really don’t care that much about. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard students say some form of the following statement:

“I really don’t like my major. I don’t like going to my classes. But I’m 3 years into it, so I might as well just finish my degree, get a good job, make a lot of money, and then life will be swell.”

Two things specifically strike me about students who make these statements:

1. Their belief that making a lot of money and becoming “successful” will automatically make them happy. Although this notion is widespread, unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to work that way. In fact, according to psychological research, once people are able to pay their bills, additional money doesn’t seem to produce more happiness. In fact, some have suggested that the opposite is true: Being happy causes you to do things that result in money and success. Although I think many of my students understand this on some level (maybe from seeing their rich, but miserable, uncle), they nevertheless forget it as they pursue their careers.

2. The sound of dread, anxiety, and lack of passion that is so evident in their voices when they talk about their future careers. It pains me to think that these students might spend many, many hours of their lives working on jobs that drain the life out of them.

Now, there are likely many reasons why students (and others) have these negative beliefs and feelings.

Pressure from parents and professors to get good grades.

The mistaken belief that they have to have their entire lives figured out by the time they graduate from college.

Unrealistic expectations about what it means to be “successful”

And so on…

But there’s also one other reason, I believe, why some students are not as happy as they otherwise might be.

The Impact of Your Posse

In a word, here’s what it comes down to: friends.


Your amigos. Your buddies. Your pals. Your comrades. Your squad.

Your posse.

Yes, your posse can have a big impact on how you feel, how you think, and even on who you eventually become.

Let me explain.

When we hang around others, we consistently “reinforce” and “punish” the things they say and do.

For example, when our friends say or do something we like, we flash them a smile, pat them on the back, and tell them we agree—all of which make it more likely that they’ll say the same thing again some time in the future. Eventually, it’s what they come to believe.

Similarly, when friends do things we don’t like, we frown, shake our heads unapprovingly, and tell them to STFU—all of which “punish” their behavior and make it less likely to occur again. Eventually, they might stop believing and acting in certain ways.

They do the same to us, and we, in effect, mold each other in ways that affect who we ultimately become—how we feel, what we believe, and even how we act. In fact, as this classic study by psychologist Joel Greenspoon shows, we often do this to each other without even being aware of it.

No wonder we frequently find ourselves in the company of people who have similar political beliefs, musical interests, and hobbies. We shape each other in ways that often make us quite similar to one another. No wonder Jim Rohn suggested that we’re the average of the five people we hang around with the most.

And no wonder when we hang around negative people, we find ourselves getting a little (or a lot) negative, too.

Are Your Friends Turning You Into Debbie Downer?

There seem to be numerous ways this plays out in college (and in other settings, too).

1. For one, as I noted above, many students don’t like their majors and classes, and so they end up complaining about them. If they do this with friends who feel the same way, they end up reinforcing each other’s negative statements about their academic experiences. And so the negative feelings continue.

2. There’s also a prevailing belief that college, like work, is supposed to be unenjoyable (or at least the academic part of it). Given this far-reaching belief, it’s almost as if it becomes a competition to see whose days are the most unpleasant. Friends try to “one up” each other (“I haven’t slept for 3 days!” or “I studied for 15 hours straight!”) and end up receiving lots of social praise from each other for doing these extreme things (many of which have a negative effect on their moods).

3. Finally, as a society, we often don’t pay much attention to each other when we’re in good moods—it’s almost as if we’re annoyed by happy people! But when things start to go bad, we show up in spades to support our friends (which is good!). Unfortunately, this can backfire when a student, for example, learns that she only gets attention when she talks about her “miserable” life or posts a negative Facebook status. She enjoys the attention (as most of us do) and behaves accordingly to get it.

In short, we’re often responsible for turning each other into Debbie Downer.

Your Posse and Your Passion

Importantly, who we hang out with also has a big impact on the passion we experience in our lives. I’ve found, for example, that when my students hang around others who believe in the idea of finding what you love to do and pursuing it, they get motivated to do the same.

Similarly, if we have friends who like to shoot down our ideas or who always talk about how life is completely unfair, it’s no wonder we start to feel the same way they do. As they say, misery loves company.

When I talk to students about passion and choosing careers they enjoy, I see the effects of this “social punishment” first-hand. Rather than entertaining the idea of doing something they love, my students come up with excuses (as I’ve done plenty of times before). They might mention a career that truly interests them, but then they quickly follow it with, “That’s not possible” or “I’d never be successful doing that” or “It’s just too risky” or “That’s a stupid idea.”

The interesting thing is that we’re not born being so pessimistic and negative. My sons, for example, believe they can do anything they want when they grow up.

But somewhere along the way, that belief gets beaten out of us.

As I’ve discussed before, some of that “lack of belief” comes from parents and teachers.

But some of it, no doubt, comes from friends—negative friends who, unfortunately, don’t believe in themselves and who sometimes lead us to have the same self-defeating beliefs.

Maybe It’s Time to Re-evaluate Your Posse

Ultimately, your friends matter. Hang around five positive, motivated people, and you’re likely to feel the same way.

But hang around five negative people, and your life is likely to move in the same direction as theirs.

So, if you’re feeling less than positive about the direction in which you’re life is moving, or if you’re yearning to do something that lights you up but don’t think you have what it takes, maybe you need to take a close look at your friends.

If they’re not providing you with the type of positivity you want in your life, maybe it’s time to re-evaluate your posse.


If you have a minute, I’d love to hear what you think about this post. Have you had to deal with overly negative friends? How did it affect you? Please leave a comment below.

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Applying the 3 M’s: My Diet and Exercise Updates

As you probably know, I am a psychologist. I study and teach students why humans (and non-humans) do what they do.

Although there are numerous theoretical perspectives in psychology, I tend to categorize myself as a behaviorist, or behavior analyst.

Behavior analysis is a sub-area of psychology that attempts to explain human behavior by appealing to a person’s genetic make-up, past experiences, and current conditions (or current environment).

For example, people who are prone to overeating (ahem…) might behave that way because (a) they have a genetic predisposition to do so, (b) they’ve had lots of good experiences (or “reinforcers”) with food in the past, and (c) their current environment is filled with “cues” that prompt them to eat (like a pantry that is filled with unhealthy foods or friends who encourage them to eat). Together, these factors lead these people to eat more than they should.

Using this framework, behavior analysts have also spent a lot of time trying to change behavior in socially significant ways. For instance, applied behavior analysts do important work in educational settings, in business settings, and in the area of intellectual disabilities (just to name a few).

Importantly, because it’s impossible to change a person’s genetic make-up and past experiences, applied behavior analysts focus their efforts on changing the elements of a person’s current environment that impact their behavior. For instance, if a person struggles with overeating, an applied behavior analyst might try to modify the person’s eating environment so that there are more cues to eat healthy foods and more “rewards” that follow healthy eating.

Dr. Robert Epstein, who worked with famous psychologist/behaviorist B. F. Skinner, has suggested in his great book, Self-Help Without the Hype, that changing a person’s behavior (including your own) can be boiled down to three steps (what Epstein calls “the 3 M’s“):

1. Measuring your behavior (so you have a very clear idea of whether your behavior is changing for the better)

2. Modifying your environment (so the factors that lead to positive habit change are present and the factors that promote bad habits are as absent as possible)

3. Making a public commitment (so others can support you in your efforts)

(I have discussed these steps previously, so I’m not going to dive into detail here. But if you’re looking for a few simple ways to incorporate the 3 M’s into your own life, see herehere, and here.)

Although I study behavioral principles and teach others how to apply them in their own lives, I sometimes forget to use them in my own. As such, this post is simply a way for me to make sure I’m practicing what I preach.

I’m going to experiment a little bit over the next few weeks and see if keeping a running tally of my diet and exercise activities, and then posting everything on my blog, has a positive effect on my health habits.

Doing this, I think, will allow me to capitalize on the 3 M’s in at least two important ways:

First, to make sure I’m providing accurate updates, I will need to measure carefully both my dietary and exercise habits. Research has shown that the simple act of carefully measuring your behavior is often enough to produce positive changes in your habits (because you become more aware of how often you’re engaging in both good and bad habits).

Second, posting updates is a way for me to make a public commitment and capitalize on the social support of family, friends, students, and others. I hope these people will provide me with positive support when I “do good” and call me out when I “do bad.”

Updates start tomorrow (Monday, January 25), and I’ll be posting them at:

Diet and Exercise – Daily Updates

I’d love if you’d check in periodically with me and help keep me on track.

Thanks in advance for your support!


If you have a minute, I’d also love to hear what you think about this post. How could you apply the 3 M’s in your life? Maybe you could start by making a public commitment here. What do you think?

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Imposter Syndrome: Is It Holding You Back?

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I remember back in graduate school when I was first applying for academic positions. At that point, I had been studying psychology intensely for about 8 years and had a pretty good grasp on the topic (although I’ve learned a TON more since then). I had published some of my research and received strong student evaluations for my teaching. My graduate advisor told me I was ready to move on.

By all accounts, I was well prepared to take the next step and become a psychology professor. And yet, one thing continued to linger in the back of my mind:

“I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m not ready for this. I don’t know what I’m talking about.”

These thoughts would pop up at random times and make me wonder whether I was just a big fraud who really didn’t know what he was doing.

I remember one specific time when was I interviewing for a job. During my research talk (which is a common part of academic interviews), a professor in the audience asked me a question about one of my studies. After I gave my answer, he shook his head a bit, as if to say, “Nope, that’s wrong.” Although he said nothing further, I knew for sure that he had found me out—I was just a punk kid who didn’t know what he was talking about. Obviously, I wasn’t going to get the job…

Well, as it turns out, I did get the job. Moreover, after thinking about the professor’s question for awhile, I realized that I had answered his question correctly. He was the one who was wrong!

About a year later, I was sitting in my office reflecting on my first semester as a college professor. I remember thinking to myself, “Wow! I actually do know what I’m doing. My advisor was right: I was ready to become a college professor.”

And yet, even though I had experienced a number of “successes” by that point, I still had lingering doubts about my ability to be a really good college professor.

So why did I doubt myself?

Hello Imposter Syndrome!

This phenomenon—that despite our external accomplishments, we still don’t believe we’re good enough—is known as “imposter syndrome.”

And I think it keeps a lot of people from doing things they really want to do in life.


First introduced by the psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes and studied in high-achieving women, imposter syndrome (which Clance and Imes called the “imposter phenomenon”) refers to the lingering belief that we’re not competent or that we don’t deserve success, despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

People with imposter syndrome believe that they are phonies or frauds and that any success they have achieved is due to luck or other external factors. None of their success is due to intelligence, ability, or hard work.

The interesting part about imposter syndrome is that people who suffer from it tend to be the only ones who can’t see that they have what it takes to be successful—that they’ve “got the goods.”

Unfortunately, I see this syndrome a lot in my students (and others). In fact, I still see it in myself sometimes.

Imposter Syndrome: A Couple Examples

Let me give you a couple more examples of what imposter syndrome looks like.

Example #1

A few years ago, I had a student who was clearly exceptional. By all accounts, she had excelled during her college years: She had a very high GPA, great scores on her graduate-admissions tests, extensive research experience (including a publication, which is rare for undergraduates), and even teaching experience. Plus, she was just an all-around good person.

But when it came time for her to apply to graduate programs, I noticed that she was applying to programs that were clearly below her ability level. When I asked her about it, she proceeded to tell me how she “wasn’t that good” and that there was no way she’d ever get into a top-notch program.

After some discussion, I finally convinced her to “up her game” a bit and apply to some PhD programs. I still don’t think she believed in herself, but she went along with me anyway.

Long story short, she ended up getting into several excellent PhD programs. She is now in a highly rated graduate program and doing very well.

Example #2

More recently (as you know if you’ve been following my blog at all), I decided that I wanted to get into a band again. I had played guitar in a few different bands when I was younger, and I realized that I really missed that part of my youth.

There was a problem, though: I didn’t think I was good enough. I had spent the last couple of years taking lessons and getting my “chops” back. And still, I didn’t believe I was good enough to join a real band.

Eventually, I convinced myself that I needed to take the first step and see where I stood. I remember getting together with my future bandmates and talking about what we hoped to accomplish if we decided to start a band. I kept telling them over and over that I might not be good enough or up to their level (because all of them had played in bands recently). In fact, I think my negative talk made them doubt my abilities, even though they hadn’t even heard me play yet.

Well, the first rehearsal came, and as we started practicing our songs, I realized that maybe I could hold my own. We started to learn more and more songs, and I found myself being able to play them competently.

For the first time in my recent guitar-playing life, I thought to myself, “Maybe I’m not an imposter!”

I knew I had (and still have) a lot more to learn, but at the very least, I came to realize that I had greatly underestimated my ability. (I’m also incredibly fortunate to have bandmates who are very supportive and who continue to tell me that “you got this” when I start to question my ability.)

A Few Problems with Imposter Syndrome

Unfortunately, there are numerous problems that come with having imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome can lead to burnout.

Because people who suffer from imposter syndrome don’t want to be “found out,” they often work incredibly hard to cover for their perceived shortcomings. They hope that doing so will keep others from finding out “the truth.” Unfortunately, they overwork and eventually become burned out.

Imposter syndrome is self-perpetuating.

When people suffer from imposter syndrome, they often purposely hold back from performing at their highest levels. Then when their performance suffers, it confirms their pre-existing beliefs about being imposters. And so the cycle continues.

Imposter syndrome keeps people from setting their sights high and pursing big, important goals.

When people believe they don’t have what it takes to be successful or to achieve their goals, they often don’t even try. They convince themselves they’re not able. They also convince themselves that not failing is more important than achieving their big goals or pursuing their dreams.

And so they stay put, not improving or growing in any important ways.

Or if they do try, they set the bar really low so they don’t have to experience failure. In this case, these people often pursue what psychologists call “performance-avoidance” goals.

Performance-avoidance goals are those where the objective is simply to avoid doing worse than others. For example, a student who pursues performance-avoidance goals in class simply wants to make sure he doesn’t get one of the lowest grades in class. He can avoid “failure” by showing others that he has, in fact, exceeded the goals he set for himself—even if they are relatively low (and even if they do result in a less-than-desirable grade).

The problem with these goals is that they typically have a negative effect on motivation and performance. People who set the bar really low don’t get excited about what they’re pursuing. And because their goals are relatively easy to reach, their performance doesn’t improve that much.

Imposter Syndrome: We All Have It

Interestingly, as I’ve talked to more and more students (and others) about the idea of imposter syndrome, I’ve come to realize this:

Many of them believe they’re the only ones suffering from it. They believe that everyone else but them has it “figured out.”

But here’s the reality:

A number of studies over the past 30 or so years have shown that upwards of 70% of people (including Albert Einstein and actress Emma Watson) experience imposter syndrome at some time during their lives (for more examples, see here and here).

I know this is definitely the case for many of my students. As they struggle to get their lives in order, they convince themselves that they’re the only ones who still have questions about their abilities or concerns about where they’re headed in life.

And because being an imposter is perceived as a “bad” thing, they take steps to make sure others don’t find out the truth. Instead, they claim that everything is good, that they know exactly what they want to do with their lives, that they have everything figured out.

Unfortunately, when everyone takes steps to conceal their imposter syndrome, what we’re left with is the collective perception that “I’m the only one who doesn’t know what I’m doing.”

The fact of the matter is that many of us have, at one time or another, suffered from imposter syndrome.

And if that’s the case, we should be willing to open up and talk to others about it. In fact, one of the best treatments for imposter syndrome is talking to others and realizing that many (if not most) people are in the very same boat.

When we finally accept the fact that “we’re all imposters,” we’re more likely to try things out and see where we stand.

And when we finally take a chance and do that, we often surprise ourselves.


If you have a minute, I’d love to hear what you think about this post. Have you ever dealt with imposter syndrome? Do you know others who have? How did you deal with it? Please leave a comment below.

Also, if you enjoyed this post, please subscribe to my email list (in the sidebar to the left), and please share it with others (by clicking one of the icons below). Thanks!


Happy New Year: Goodbye 2015, Hello 2016


Happy New Year!

Yes, we’re already 2 weeks into 2016, but I’m going to go ahead and wish you a Happy New Year anyway.

I hope the last few weeks of 2015 treated you well, and I hope the first few weeks of 2016 have been even better.

Looking Back at 2015

Personally, the end of each year provides me with an opportunity to reflect on all the good stuff that happened over the previous 365 days (something I’ve been doing more and more of now that I’ve reached that time of my life called “middle age”). For example:

I was fortunate to receive the James Madison University College of Health and Behavioral Sciences Madison Scholar award for outstanding research. It’s nice to know that people have recognized the value of my research (so much of which has been done with an outstanding cast of students).

I went with my family to visit the North Carolina Conservators Center, where our friend, Kim, spends a lot of her time.

I taught another class on the psychology of passion, which went really well.

I gave several talks to college students on the topic of passion and why it’s so important for them to do things they love (which was a goal of mine for 2015).

I loved watching the boys play baseball in the spring.

In April, we went to the Virginia Horse Festival, where we got to meet Kate Chenery. Her family owned the famous racehorse, Secretariat, who my oldest son has been obsessed with for the past 3 or so years.

I started this blog, which, to date, has been viewed over 17,000 times.

I celebrated my wife’s 40th birthday by throwing her a surprise party with about 50 of her close family and friends.

I visited New York City in May for a psychology conference. My wife and I got to visit with some old friends and see the sights of the city.

For the first time in my professional career, I decided to slow down during the summer and enjoy myself. I spent a lot of time with family going to local baseball games and doing other fun things.

My family went on vacation in July, which included trips to Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky (where Secretariat is buried—yes, this was my oldest son’s birthday wish) and to various spots in West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, where we visited family and went to several professional baseball games.

I was invited to give talks on my research at a psychology conference in Red Bank, New Jersey, and at a faculty development conference at the University of Mississippi.

I joined a band! If you’ve read any of my previous blog posts, you’ll know that playing guitar has long been (and continues to be) a passion of mine. In fact, when I was younger, I wanted to pursue a career in music. But life often goes in unintended directions, and over the years, I eventually stopped playing guitar altogether. A few years ago, after some soul searching, I decided to start playing again. Long story short, I got in touch with some local musicians over the summer, and we’ve spent the last few months learning songs and getting ourselves in a position to play gigs around town. I couldn’t be more excited!

So there you have it—a brief recap of some of the cool things that happened to me in 2015. Yes, there were some downsides, but why focus on the negative?

Looking Forward to 2016

Just as the start of 2016 gives me a chance to reflect on the good of 2015, it also provides a great opportunity to think about the upcoming year and what I want to accomplish during that time—things that will hopefully help make 2016 the best year yet.

Here are a few goals I have for myself:

I want to continue with my weight-loss goals. I made some progress in 2015, although not as much as I had hoped. (I’m hoping to post another update on this some time soon.) But rather than dwell on the fact that I didn’t lose as much as I wanted, I instead am going to re-focus my efforts and continue on the road to improved health (and smaller jeans). In July, my wife and I will celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary, and my goal is to weigh less by then than I did when we tied the knot.

I want to be a better husband and dad. Sometimes I fail—sometimes miserably—in these roles. My family is the most important thing in my life. Why wouldn’t I try to get better in these areas? Enough said…

I want to be more mindful. Life moves really, REALLY fast (especially as you get older), and I sometimes worry that I’m missing much of it. For example, my boys are already 7 and 4 years old—where has the time gone?! What I’ve come to realize is that I have a tendency to think ahead too much—I’m frequently thinking about what I have to do next rather than focusing on what I’m currently doing. And I don’t take the time to savor the good things that happen to me. But here’s an important thing I need to remember: Life is made up of nothing but present moments. The future isn’t here yet, and the past is already gone. If you don’t pay attention to the present, you essentially miss out on life! This year, I’m going to work on being more mindful and present. I don’t want to miss out anymore.

I want to further nurture my passions. Over the past few years, I have truly enjoyed getting back into playing guitar. It was a huge part of my identity when I was in my teens and 20s, and not playing for many years made me feel like a part of me was missing. (“Hey, guitar… You. Complete. Me.”) I’m excited to be playing in a band again, and I’m excited to see where 2016 takes us. As I’ve said before, life is both too short and too long not to do things you love.

I want to help others nurture their passions. In 2015, I realized how much I enjoy helping students (and others) find ways to improve their lives. I feel like some of the work I did in 2015 (including talks I gave and things I wrote on this blog) might’ve made a very small impact on some people’s lives. And that feels great! One of the reasons I became a college professor was to repay some of the professors I had in college who helped me find my way. I want to do my best in 2016 to keep repaying that debt (and that includes updating my blog more regularly than I have over the past few months).

As the year goes on, I’m sure that I will add new goals, further refine the ones I set for myself, and maybe even get rid of a few of them depending on how and where things go.

Regardless, I feel good about where I went in 2015 and where 2016 has taken me so far.

I can’t wait to see how 2016 unfolds, and I look forward to checking in with you every so often to let you know how things are going.

Once again, Happy New Year, and here’s to a great 2016!


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