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High five!

Too often people are defined by the tasks they take on. They shouldn’t be. People are more than the work we do yet so often that’s all others see.


We are fortunate that we have each other in friendship as well as partnership at ROAMcare, and we both have circles of friends and acquaintances that span the breadth of our interests beyond work and family obligations. Motivational speaker Jim Rohn says that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. That statement’s accuracy has been argued from both sides, but there is no doubt the number five plays an important role in our relationships. There is equally no doubt that we do assimilate the traits and characteristics of those we spend the most time with.


British anthropologist Robin Dunbar is well known for his magic number, 150, as in, people can handle up to 150 meaningful contacts, or in another word, friends, from his 2010 publication, How many friends does one person need? But the complete theory goes well beyond that single number. Dunbar’s theory postulates we have 5 circles of contacts. The tightest, inner circle is made of our “loved ones” and that is limited to 5 contacts. The next tightest group are our closest friends, or as he described them “good friends,” and people can handle 15 good friends. In the next of our circles are our “friends” and these number 50. The penultimate ring are those 150 “meaningful contacts,”, and then on the outermost ring of our circle are 500 “acquaintances.” Beyond the circle of acquaintances Dunbar also recognizes that we each also can recognize 1500 people. Each of the 5 rings is itself a multiple of five, and even the number of people we recognize outside our circle is a multiple of five.


Some argue Dunbar’s numbers are too conservative and people can easily manage hundreds of meaningful contacts, no doubt under the influence of social media. Dunbar admits these numbers are more average that exact, introverts and extroverts may shift numbers of contacts closer or further from the center but that there is a "cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships" and the innermost circle of loved ones rarely deviates from five.


Indeed that may have been the inspiration of Rohn’s theory that we become an average of the five people we spend the most time with. If most of the people we spend time with, our “loved ones,” are those we socialize with, live with, love with, and share our lives with, we stand a good chance of being well rounded, interesting, and happy people. On the other hand, if we spend most of our time with 5 work colleagues, people from the office, or those we share only our business or work lives with, we stand a chance of being the sort who complain of there not being a good work-life balance in modern society. And finally, if our “loved ones” are known to us only through online interactions, we will be as remote as the definition implies, “far removed in space, time, or relation” (Merriam Webster Dictionary).


We are more than the work we do and our circles of friends and acquaintances should span the breadth of our interests. If we really are the average of the five people we spend the most time with, we owe it to those people we spend the most time with, and to ourselves, to choose our 5 closest contacts wisely, and see that our “loved ones” truly are our loved ones.



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