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Why you’re the smartest when being alone


Mai Le


You’ve probably encountered this quote or many of its paraphrased versions:

“You’re the average of the five people you spend most of your time with.” – Jim Rohn, Businessman, Motivational Speaker

I have long agreed with this sentiment, but I previously underestimated its importance. Only recently did I truly grasp the profound influence of my peers. In my interactions with others, I genuinely regard everyone as an expert. I believe that individuals excel in areas they dedicate most of their time to, whether it’s gaming, watching beauty videos on YouTube, or listening to TED talks about psychology. Every action or inaction we engage in feeds our brain, either consciously or subconsciously, with information. Those who recognize this actively direct their information intake toward their goals. However, many of us haphazardly devote our time to unrelated activities. Through these intriguing but unconnected actions, our brains continuously assimilate new information, much of which deviates from our knowledge and personality objectives, making us lose sight of what’s truly relevant. The gap between where we are and where we want to be lies in the relevance of our activities versus the vision of who we wish to become. While we invest our time in diverse fields, everyone becomes an expert in their own right. Sadly, society often equates academic excellence with success from an early age. This perspective pushes many teenagers to see themselves as failures due to academic struggles, even when they possess expertise in areas such as diets, cars, makeup tutorials, or bicycle components. While I learn from my peers’ expertise, my ego sometimes convinces me that my strong convictions shield me from external influence. I used to see interactions as exchanges of insights. This process either fortified or challenged my existing beliefs. But I overlooked other facets of human interaction that shape the way my peers influence me.

Emotional Influence

Emotional trauma often clouds rational judgment. During such times, it’s common to feel trapped in negativity. Friends provide a rational, clear, and unbiased perspective, which often becomes our default position. What I failed to realize is that, particularly during emotional distress, we wholeheartedly adopt and even internalize their advice as our own. Unbeknownst to us, in our vulnerable state, peers can exert a significant influence. Hence, it’s crucial to surround oneself with people who can handle such situations with grace and offer a logical, fair, and unbiased solution.

Raw Intelligence

In the realm of raw intelligence, the synergy between minds is immense. I confess I previously undervalued the importance of being around genuinely intelligent individuals. These individuals think rapidly, structure problems logically, and assess situations with astounding accuracy and impartiality. They also boast remarkable memory skills. Engaging with them made me realize that my mental faculties might have been dormant for a while. I considered myself knowledgeable until I discerned the difference between being street-smart and having grounded insights. While I believed I had a broad understanding, I had merely scratched the surface of knowledge. This realization was both humbling and invigorating. Although raw intelligence is primarily genetic, one can hone their cognitive abilities through focused practice. A great starting point to understand our cognitive biases is the book: “You are Not So Smart: Why Your Memory is Mostly Fiction, Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself.”

Why You’re Smartest When Mostly Alone

Influence is powerful and inescapable. Your interactions will shape others just as they shape you. Associating with intelligent and successful individuals can propel your insights and cognitive abilities. However, solely depending on peers for growth is inadequate. To truly excel, you must spend substantial time alone. Recall your proudest moments; preparing for them likely involved solitary dedication. Learning is most profound in solitude. Loneliness is a choice with a purpose: with a clear goal, solitude becomes an investment, not a punishment. I see social engagements as luxurious, given their opportunity cost to my personal growth. While society may celebrate popularity, mastery demands extensive individual practice, minimizing distractions and irrelevant influences. Embrace solitude; it’s when you learn the most.


I’ve compiled over 300 cover letters from myself and colleagues at the Cover Letter Library. This exclusive collection features successful applications to premier investment banks, Big Four firms, and others. Discover more here.

Illustration by my friend Karl. Follow my updates on Instagram @official.mai.le.

Written by Mai Le

My name is Mai. I am originally from Vietnam. After my university years at LSE, I worked in investment banking at Goldman Sachs. After a wonderful time there, I started several of my own business as well as helping others on theirs. I've always been building communities and businesses for as long as I can remember, and absolutely thrilled to see others enjoy what I've built.



  1. the suboo

    Some very interesting points raised. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Dao Le

    You need to work on your prose – too many short, unconnected sentences. Some sentences hardly make sense and lack substances (e.g. "Influence is immoral" – how can influence be moral or immoral – a quality that involves element of choice, and thus applied only to human beings).

    • Mai Le

      It is in my intention to write short sentences (inspired by advice from William Strunk 1918 – The Elements of Style). Short sentences inspire the reader to think beyond the naked literature. The most profound meanings are concise, not presented in full but recalled from the reader’s depth, of knowledge, personality and life exposure. On "Influence is immoral", it was conceptually excerpted from Oscar Wilde’s 1890 philosophical novel "The Picture of Dorian Gray". Full context is as follows:

      "There is no such thing as a good influence, Mr. Gray. All influence is immoral — immoral from the scientific point of view."


      "Because to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of some one else’s music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him. The aim of life is self-development. To realize one’s nature perfectly — that is what each of us is here for. People are afraid of themselves, nowadays. They have forgotten the highest of all duties, the duty that one owes to one’s self. "


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