The Importance Of Good Influences

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While I was growing up, my brothers (I’m the eldest of four boys—I know: my poor mother) often chided me for being so much like my father. I suppose it was inevitable that I would be; firstborn children tend to be rule followers (if you believe in the significance of birth order) and I fit the stereotype. Some boys use their fathers to push against as they struggle to establish their own independent identities. I used mine as a role model.

My decision to do this was largely, though not entirely, unconscious.  wanted his approval and love, of course, and I was always clever—so emulating him seemed a good way to get it. But as I was clever, I also discerned the parts of him that were worth emulating: his decency, his commitment to honesty, his intellectual curiosity, his disdain for the influence of peer pressure (I presume shown to me for the express purpose of preparing me to resist it), and his zealous devotion to our family.

As far back as I can remember, he enforced the idea that I should think for myself and never do something just because others were doing it (never drawing attention to the irony of his own attempt to shape my thinking with this advice). He’s been without a doubt one of my greatest good influences (the other being my mother). His influence, generated by what he said and did (and by the congruence between them), had as much an effect—if not more—over my development as my peers. Much of what’s good in me came from him, and I count myself lucky to have had him. As I’ve mulled over the beneficial effects of his influence over me, I’ve found myself wondering about the power of influence in general.


Control over our lives is something we all want. But in a universe in which everything is mutually interdependent, none of us has absolute control over anything except ourselves (and even over ourselves our control is indirect and partial only). Instead, what we all have in abundance is influence, the power of which seems to function linearly: the closer personally and physically others are to us, the greater our influence over them, and vice versa. Even more interestingly, unlike our attempts to control, our attempts to influence don’t require our conscious intent. Which is why our ability to influence others is so much more important than our ability to control them; we’re always exerting influence simply by being who we are, saying what we say, and doing what we do. The only real choice we have in the matter is whether or not the influence we exert is good or bad.


You never know who’s watching you. And someone always is, whether your child, your sibling, your spouse, your friend, or a stranger in another car on the road. Emotions and inner life states are transmitted like viruses along the vectors of our words and actions, even from the quietest and smallest. Nothing can encourage us like someone else’s good example. They’re frankly few and far between—but they’re there if you look for them.  Want to create value with your life? Become a good influence.

Stop and think. What better service can you provide someone else than being a good example to them? Not with conscious intention, which always seems contrived and has little power to encourage, but by simply (oh, ironic word) becoming the examples you yourself want to see. As I wrote in a previous post, How To Communicate With Your Life, when you’ve actually become something, others see it in almost everything you do.


Life is a constant battle to maintain a high life-condition. In medical school, we were taught that one way to recognize that a patient is depressed is by examining our own mood once we’ve finished interacting with them. If we feel depressed ourselves, a good chance exists they are, too. A principle of Buddhism—the oneness of life and its environment—addresses this phenomenon: our own inner life state finds itself mirrored in and mirrored by our environment. In other words, everyone’s life-condition tends towards the average of those around them. If I’m up and you’re down, we’ll each tend to pull one another toward our own inner states, usually both moving toward the mean between them. Some people have exceptionally resilient life-conditions that are like rigid magnets, pulling others up (or down) powerfully without tending to move much themselves under the influence of the life-conditions of others. While we may all aspire to possess that strength (to the positive, obviously), most of us haven’t achieved it.

Others are still able to pull out of most of us varying positive or negative characteristics. Our children may pull out wise protectors or fed-up disciplinarians. Our co-workers may pull out inspiring leaders or complaining gossips. Some people are simply toxic, complaining constantly, gossiping mercilessly, even purposely sabotaging others. On days when we’re strong enough not only to avoid being pulled into similar patterns of behavior but also to help them avoid such negative behaviors as well, we can serve as good influences over them. On days when we’re weaker ourselves and therefore more susceptible to negative influences, we should avoid such people as best we can. It’s quite easy when we’re feeling low to spiral even lower under the influence of someone else’s negativity.


This is what we all really want to do, both for ourselves and others. The more good influences with which we surround ourselves, the happier we’ll be; the more people we’ll “convert” into good influences (by our own good influence), the more value we will have created, which will also add to our happiness. Yet converting someone from a bad influence into a good one is among the hardest of tasks: changing someone’s basic approach to life from negative to positive isn’t likely something any one person has the power to do. At least, not consistently. The only way, it seems to me, to turn a bad influence into a good one is by consistently being a powerful good influence yourself. Which, of course, requires you to challenge your own negativity and constantly win over it, and that is the hardest of tasks.

It’s also the most worthwhile. I can think of no better epitaph than “He helped others to better themselves.” If that’s what they end up saying about me, I will be able to consider my life to have been a success. Which is certainly what I think about my dad’s.

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  • This is a wonderful article. You are really a good writer. I’m a new subscriber and I’m really enjoying reading your stuff. Thanks.

  • Nice read going into a new week.

    Have you read The Tipping Point?…Some people have this ability to really influence others naturally. For the rest of us, it is work.


    Dan: I have. A fascinating book. I guess, though, the point of the post was that we all influence others naturally…


  • Great article; thanks for the inspiration! I also love the photograph. I think as we get older and it seems like we’ve seen everything before, and so much seems to look ominous and depressing, we can spiral into negativity and cynicism, which in turn… doesn’t really help at all. I struggle to be a good influence for my college-age children who have numerous difficulties, but they are far away, and it seems like my influence is minor now. But like you say, you never know who is watching and when.

  • Thank you! Being a caregiver at heart and a nurse, I am currently offering emotional and practical support to family members with opposite vibes. Both are in dire straits, emotionally, financially, and healthwise (along with their families). I am physically quite a distance from both and have minimal direct contact. I have found that being “present” in the physical sense allow people to receive the benefits of what you speak. It is very difficult to facilitate/exemplify any influence unless you are physically present…regardless of communication spent with e-mails, letters, phone calls etc..

    Actions DO speak louder than words, and it is very difficult to convey those across distance…without tooting one’s horn!…Nothing worse than that when a loved one is in distress….Any suggestions!

    Karen: You describe a difficult situation. All I can think to say is that I’ve found I never know just what I say or do will have an impact. Often it’s the smallest comment, the littlest gesture that I never would have guessed had any impact at all. All you can do is all you can do. Even if you were living next door to the people you’re trying to encourage and influence, you’d be no more guaranteed of having the positive impact you want. Speak and act from a place of sincerity and compassion and let go of needing to know which words and actions of yours are making a difference. We almost never get that feedback from those we try to encourage. I think just knowing you care is often the best encouragement and influence. Good luck!


  • Alex,

    I always enjoy reading your thought-provoking posts. I admire your ability to make the time and be able to cover such wide-ranging topics.

    In this post, I find it interesting the emphasis on “good” and “bad.” My limited exposure to Buddhism has led me to question the ease with which we feel we can make such judgments; indeed, whether it is even wise to judge as such.

    Now I’m not talking about serial killers or child molesters here. 😉

    Let’s take an example. A parent has concluded that an industrious life, with a strong work ethic, is the best path to take. This might come at the cost of quality time with his children. But he sees how it provides financial security, allows material comforts, enables self-reliance, and deems it “good.”

    Now his child might have different proclivities. He might be more interested in artistic or spiritual pursuits over material comforts. He might find an industrious job to be a treadmill of drudgery and boredom. He may eschew consumerism and enjoy the bohemian lifestyle.

    Is there anything clearly “good” or “bad” here? I don’t think so. Just different. I think it is important to ensure that modeling “good” behavior and choices doesn’t simply reflect modeling “one’s own” life decisions and lessons. In the end, these lessons really do need to be learned by each individual (and they may come to different conclusions).

    That said—I believe modeling a life that is internally consistent, self-aware, radiating inner peace and compassion is certainly a good thing. But that “modeling” is called “being”; as you say, aligning your words with your actions.

    So what’s my point? Only that I believe you are correct, we have the opportunity to have enormous influence on those around us. And we have to be really careful in making judgments regarding the path of another person, as we are all so unique.

    In the end, perhaps the wisest approach is to emphasize our own personal development and growth, and model that process of self-discovery. Individuals who are ready will see by example how that helps to bring about a state of inner calm, humility, and compassion, thereby alleviating suffering in oneself and others. And should they choose to embody those principals, hopefully any of the myriad life trajectories they may take will have a positive contribution to those who follow them.


    Steven: I agree that we need to be wary of consciously influencing others to behave the way we think they should. In the examples you gave, what is “good” and “bad” is indeed difficult to discern. But just because good and bad may often be difficult to discern and even change with changing circumstances doesn’t mean those distinctions don’t exist. But, in fact, your last point is the point I was trying to make in the post.


  • Hi Alex, you cannot imagine what a good influence you are on me! I have been following your PT-blog posts and this site, they really help me discern what counts and matters and help kick-start my week in a really mindful way. Thank you for being such a good influence on me!


  • I enjoy your site and wait for your weekly newsletter in my email box. I practice this life-philosophy too and chant. I especially look forward to your examples from the concepts, such as the one cited above. They offer me a valuable and novel view which increases my understanding. Thank you so much for sharing; its really valuable. Best regards.

  • Beautiful! I sent it to my husband to thank him for being the positive influence that he is to our boys.

  • Great post, really struck a cord with me. I too enjoy your site and look forward to your new posts. Thank you.

  • Another well-written, thought-provoking post. But among the thoughts provoked is this: What if one is struggling and mostly failing to do the right things with one’s life at the same time as one wants to influence one’s children toward positive behaviors? For example, I would like my children to learn to apply themselves and work hard toward goals, but this is nothing I have ever managed to do for myself. I see the value in it, and I want to convey that value to them, but my entire life has been a drift along the path of least resistance, with the result that I dare not even think about personal goals because it sinks me into a deep depression. How can one convey, “I want you to value this because I see it is good, even though it has thus far eluded me in my own life?”

    Nomi: That’s a tough one. People tend to be influenced more by what others do than what they say, of course (hence the parental cliche: “Do what I say, not what I do!”). But maybe you might enlist your children as your allies, saying something like this: “I’m not so good at working toward goals myself, but I see great value in it. Maybe we could work on becoming better at it together.” Research suggests children are powerfully motivated to make their parents happy. If you’re honest about your own failings, rather than balk at your hypocrisy (in wanting or expecting them to do what you yourself do not), they may become motivated to both provide support to you and receive support from you in this area, looking at the whole enterprise the way two people will who commit to exercising together to improve their chances of actually going to the gym. Who knows? Maybe your children will help you more than you help them—and in doing so help themselves.


  • Alex,
    This was such a helpful post—in fact, not just the post but your reply to several of your readers’ comments as well. Your comment to Karen is so true—that we never know when what we do or say will have a positive impact. The smallest gesture can help someone even if, as you say, we never get positive feedback from it. I know this because I can think of several times I’ve been influenced positively by an offhand comment by another. When I was at the beginning of my teaching career, I was unhappy that I wasn’t great in the classroom. I was making myself miserable by constantly comparing my performance to the few colleagues who were “stars” on the faculty. Yes, I was competent, but I wasn’t in their league and I wondered if I should just quit. I complained to a casual acquaintance about my B+ teaching skills and she said: “Well, there can only be one Beatles. That doesn’t mean other people shouldn’t play music.” I lost touch with this person and I imagine that, to this day, she has no idea how much that comment helped me (I stuck with it and became a much better teacher) and, even more importantly, how I’ve used her example of the Beatles over and over to try to positively influence others (especially my children) when they are frustrated about the level of their performance in their vocation or in their avocation.

  • Dear Alex,

    This was such a wonderful post. I read it twice as well as all the comments shared by everyone who has contributed.

    Thank you for elucidating this subject. There is just so much good generated by choosing to be a good influence, without knowing the precise outcomes it engenders, just trusting it does.

  • Wonderful post. Thanks for extending your own direct, good influence beyond the people who know you personally to anyone with the good fortune to have found and follow your blog.

  • Another great post, Alex. Examining my own mood after interacting with others is something I shall look at from now on. Thanks. 🙂

  • Thought provoking as always. I will press on today to be a “good influence.” Thank you!