The Comparison Trap

When I was in (middle and high) school, at the end of a mid-term, let’s say, when we got our test score, we were also given a rank in the report card based on our overall scoring percentage as to where we stood relative to other students in the class. This led to higher-ranked students forming their own little factions in class. They would look upon themselves as superior compared to the rest and not spend time with other students (to help them or otherwise) who didn’t perform as well. Of course, the other issue with this approach was because some students got so hung up on beating others, true learning was lost in the process, which was the actual goal of school to begin with. Here’s the thing: We are happy with the enormous progress we have made in our learning until we find out our progress relative to others, which is when we feel dismayed or disappointed.

Truth be told, I never cared about the ranking system in school. In fact, I despised it — not because I didn’t do well, but because I didn’t see the point. Sure, for some it might have been motivating to see others do well in class and drive them to do their best, but it never inspired me to do well. Of course, it was possible to do well academically without actually learning most things (through rote memorization), but what was the point of that? Why even bother? If all we wanted was to beat others in class in terms of textbook knowledge, where was the real joy of learning things and applying them toward something meaningful? I wasn’t against getting good grades — what mattered to me more was how we got them.

As a result of this environment that we create for students in schools and colleges, they end up being prouder of the overall percentage (or grade point average) they achieved rather than what they learned. In fact, they think of having that high percentage as a status symbol to impress others.

When these students graduate from college, they find themselves in a work environment competing with others in an organization. For instance, in an effort to increase the quarterly sales, their manager might have them compete against each other using the carrot-and-stick approach so they can get bonuses and promotions when they hit their “sales targets”, let’s say, and might get demoted or fired when they fail to reach those targets, thus perennially living in fear. In the military, we are rewarded for saving others’ lives. In business, we are rewarded for putting ourselves ahead of others. We have it backwards, don’t we?

It’s not hard in this day and age to compare ourselves to others through social media and whatnot. Constantly looking at your feed of those you follow has the potential to make you feel unhappy, envious, and lonely because maybe you’re not living as “interesting” a life as your “friends”. You can’t help but compare yourself to others. One thing we forget is that everyone puts their best foot forward on the web. It’s easy to compare our (inner) struggles with others’ (outer) “successes”.

In our social lives, we may be prone to comparing ourselves with our friends in terms of things they are doing, money they are making, etc. We might be unwittingly keeping up with the Joneses, so to speak, and thus, losing sight of the bigger picture. We forget to take a step back and think about what we are doing and, more importantly, why we are doing it.

If you are a parent of two or more children, it’s easy for you to compare your kids. We miss out on the fact that they might have different strengths and it’s unfair to compare them both to each other. This is akin to comparing apples and oranges because the question is by what standard will you be comparing them? In other words, is a PC better than a Mac or vice-versa? Is a Ferrari better than a Minivan? If so, by what standards? If you have a big family, you’re more likely to get a Minivan. Without determining the criteria with which to compare them, there is no one right answer for everyone.

Some of my friends are more (financially) successful than I am. They also happen to work most of the time, which is the price they pay for their “success”. They spend so much time in their business that they don’t have a life. It’s more like owning a job than a business, because the whole idea of having a business is freedom and control over your time. With all due respect to them, anyone with a reasonable brain can spend long hours at work and make money, all things considered. But, can they do the same thing while working fewer hours? Time is true wealth and money is just fuel to sustain our lives. But for them, money might be the real wealth. The point is we have different metrics, so any comparison would likely be faulty and unfair to both.

Here is an example of how comparison played out earlier in my consulting work. When talking to prospects, they often asked me what made my work different from others. In other words, why should they work with me? My first instinct was to tell them they shouldn’t, but here’s the thing. I don’t think about the “competition”. I just don’t think in those terms. I don’t compare my work to others because it’s incomparable for many reasons. I tell them the only reason to work with me is if they believed what I believed, which was to inspire others to be the best we can be (in terms of our character and contribution) by doing a few things better, then together we can live to our potential and change the world for the better.

Here’s the thing: It’s easy to compare ourselves to others and find ourselves running short, but this is unfair to you and to them. Besides, we are more likely to compare our failures with others’ successes. We don’t know what their struggles are. We are only seeing what they choose to show us.

We might be unfulfilled in our work, so we buy stuff to fill this gaping void in our lives (and to keep up with the Joneses, which is a losing battle), but that feeling is fleeting at best. The problem is within us when we are looking outside. We choose to escape our reality so we can live in denial.

Theodore Roosevelt has rightly said:

Comparison is the thief of joy.

Here are some ideas for dealing with the comparison trap:

Stop comparing yourself to others and focus on yourself. You are entitled to compare yourself only to your previous self. Focus on your strengths and play to them as much as possible. Define your own success metrics as opposed to living someone else’s life. Have a strong purpose, cause, or belief for why you do what you do. Rather than having or looking up to role-models, be your own hero.

There have been times where I have found myself comparing my life to friends and family and finding myself come up short. It’s not a good feeling. It makes you question if you’re living the life you want. These were times when I needed to remind myself of my “success” metrics, stay true to my path and why I did what I did, and to not get inadvertently pulled towards living someone else’s life. It’s easy to do that if/when left unchecked.

Think bigger. Life is not a zero-sum game. There is plenty to go around for everyone. For your own sanity, stop obsessively using social media. Avoid getting caught up with the lives of others. It’s easy to compare yourself to others, but it’s ultimately your choice if you see it with envy or with admiration and inspiration. Remember, we admire (or envy) in others what we want most for ourselves. Be grateful for what you do have rather than worrying or complaining about what you don’t.

Don’t let others put you in a box. Often they do that by asking you about what you do (for money). Stop defining yourself in terms of what you do and start talking about yourself in terms of who you are. Your work does not define your life (unless you let it). It’s just one of the things you do. Don’t get caught up in the “work-identity trap”.

Finally, can comparison be a good thing? Are there some things where it can serve us? What do you think?

It’s easy to compare our lives to others as we are more likely to focus on what we don’t have rather than what we do have; the same is true with others.

When comparing yourself to others, you will never be happy or fulfilled. You’ll keep wanting more and more, but that is a bottomless pit. Forget about keeping up with the Joneses. Keep up with yourself instead. You are entitled to compare yourself only with your past and future self.

When you stop comparing yourself to others, you feel free and liberated — free and limitless to do what you want without feeling inhibited.

Just work on improving yourself for the sake of being better because of the cause you believe in. You are not in competition with anyone but yourself. Your work is better now than it was six months ago, and the work you do in six months will likely be better than the work you’re doing today.

Remember, it’s about doing a few things better, so don’t get caught in the comparison trap. It will lead you astray.

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