Did you see what she just accomplished? What have you done compared to that?
Look at how much he’s achieved already. And he’s younger than you too.
Before Mark Zuckerberg was 30, he was a self-made billionaire. What exactly are you doing again?
Imagine if you had a friend who was constantly comparing you to someone else – someone much better off. Every accomplishment you make would be compared to someone who’s done more and done it faster. Every win would be quickly overshadowed by someone else’s success.
It doesn’t sound like much of a friend – more like a one-upper from Hell. I’m guessing you’d quickly tell this person just what they can do with their so-called thoughts. No way would you put up with it for long.
And yet, we all do this to ourselves every day.
We’re constantly comparing ourselves to other people. And rarely to people who are worse off than us. Instead, we constantly undermine our accomplishments by comparing them to others who have – and have done – more.
All-in-all, we treat ourselves far worse than we’d ever allow someone else to.
I don’t know why we do this. Maybe it’s instinct – a way to force our species to continuously adapt and evolve. Maybe it’s a symptom of our insecurity and the need to measure our standing against a social group.
Whatever the reason, it’s a sure-fire way to demotivate yourself into a night of Netflix and ice cream.
Some people will tell you to just stop. Just don’t compare yourself to others. As if that’s easy. And as if recognizing destructive behaviors is all that’s needed to cut them out of your life.
And this solution ignores the benefit that can come with these comparisons. Viewing others as role models can be motivational. Having active goals keeps us striving for growth and improvement.
But without the right focus, this quickly becomes a negative. If you’re always comparing yourself to those who’ve accomplished more, no matter how well you do, you’re always falling behind.
And no one stays motivated to improve if they feel that they’re constantly falling behind.
Think about the last time you compared yourself to someone else. Was it a motivating or demotivating experience? Did it help you take positive action or just feel worse about yourself?
Telling people to simply stop is neither helpful nor realistic. But while it’s difficult to stop bad habits, it’s much easier to replace them with better ones. In this case, one that uses these comparisons to motivate us instead of sinking into a pit of despair.
Which all hinges on whether we use them to drive positive change.
The Requirements for Action
“Acting man is eager to substitute a more satisfactory state of affairs for a less satisfactory. His mind imagines conditions which suit him better, and his action aims at bringing about this desired state. The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness,” wrote the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises in his magnum opus, Human Action. If you don’t have a problem with your current situation, you’re unlikely to change it. People rarely take action unless they’re dissatisfied with their current state.
But this isn’t enough. Mises would go on to explain that people also need to have a vision for a better state and a belief that they can get there. If one of these things is missing, people won’t take action.
Which makes sense. If you’re unhappy with something but can’t imagine a way to make it better, you’re unlikely to try to change things. We struggle to be what we can’t see.
While comparison bias can be beneficial if it spurs us into action, it quickly becomes demotivating when it intensifies our dissatisfaction without giving us a method to change it.
The solution, then, reverses this liability. Limit comparative dissatisfaction to areas where you actually want to improve. And use it to develop tools that will help you do so.
Unfortunately, we seem to be dissatisfied with everything.
Limit Your Dissatisfaction to What’s Worth It.
“Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” – Oscar Wilde
Nearly 60 years ago, Vance Packard wrote The Waste Makers, a criticism against our obsession with consumerism. His main warning was against our “planned obsolescence of desirability” – our continuous desire for something new even when our existing model works just fine.
Advertisers became wizards at sowing dissatisfaction with our current car, house, appliances, and everything else. And in a sad time for engineers everywhere, they focused their efforts on superficial improvements that promoted fashion over function.
Growth became its own religion. Ever-increasing levels of consumption needed to support increased production. And all of this required people to adopt a constant level of dissatisfaction – one that began to consume peoples’ lives. As Packard wrote,
“A further problem is that the lives of most Americans have become so intermeshed with acts of consumption that they tend to gain their feelings of significance in life from these acts of consumption rather than from their meditations, achievements, inquiries, personal worth, and service to others.”
Rather than heed Packard’s warning, we’ve taken his concern and made it much more widespread. His “planned obsolescence of desirability” is no longer limited to consumer goods. It now encompasses our careers and all of our successes.
We’re only as good as our last success, our last deal, and our last promotion. All of which creates widespread feelings of dissatisfaction.
It’s not surprising that we’re constantly comparing ourselves to others. If we’re constantly seeking more of everything, it’s natural to compare ourselves to those with more of anything.
But there will always be others who have more. And there will always be others who’ve done more. So this probably isn’t the best threshold for success.
Sharon Salzberg, in times that she feels overwhelmed and inadequate, stops and asks herself, “What do you need right now in order to be happy? Do you need anything other than what is happening right now in order to be happy?”
Too often, we become so focused on everything that we haven’t yet done, we completely lose sight of what is really worth doing. And everything we’ve accomplished to date.
What are you looking to accomplish? Better yet, what accomplishments will make you look back on your life with pride?
People default into general dissatisfaction when they don’t have a clear vision of where they want to be or where they want to go. The next time you begin comparing yourself to others, ask yourself whether you actually want to improve in that area.
Tim Ferriss often says, “Life punishes the vague wish and rewards the specific ask.” It’s through specific visions that we achieve what we want. Just as it’s through specific destinations that we get where we want to be.
The large majority of people are competing for the same things. Because the large majority of people don’t have a clear vision of what success means to them.
Comparing yourself to others in this category only worsens the problem. It highlights the disparity and reinforces the need to seek out more of everything – a path that never has a clear destination in sight.
Debbie Millman suggests writing out a complete day ten years in the future. As detailed as possible, write out your every activity from the time that you wake up in the morning until you go to sleep that night. And while it’s an fun exercise, the main benefit is that it provides a clear definition of your goals and priorities. It offers a clear way to cut through the noise and focus on exactly where you’d like to be at that point in your life.
Whatever the method, develop your own vision for where you want to be – and where you want to go.
Because when you have a specific vision, you have a unique vision. And when you have a unique vision, you escape the pursuits of the majority. And success is always at the place where it’s least crowded. Or as Kwame Appiah wisely put it,
“It’s not how well you play the game, it’s deciding what game you want to play.”
Focus on Behaviors, Not Results
“Where there is no struggle, there is no strength.” – Oprah Winfrey
It’s easy to become demotivated when we focus on the success of others. Especially when it seems as though they’ve done it without any struggle.
Yet simply because we don’t see their struggles, doesn’t mean they aren’t there. We rarely see the years of hard work and setbacks that bring those results. And we rarely see the internal problems that people deal with on a daily basis.
One helpful practice is to ask yourself, “What am I not seeing?” When you start comparing yourself to others, stop and ask yourself what’s being left out. For one, it gives you pause to remember that everyone has their own issues. But more importantly, it reminds you that you don’t actually want to be that person, you just want one of the benefits that they’ve gained.
When Ricky Gervais was talking with Sam Harris, he mentioned that people are rarely jealous of him,
“They look at me up there in my bad jeans and sweat-stained black t-shirt, drinking Fosters out of a can and they go, ‘I don’t want to be him. I want his money, but I don’t want to be him.’”
When we compare ourselves to others, we tend to focus on the results. And not all of the results, but just one or two of them. He has more money than I do. She’s been promoted more quickly. He’s able to eat more hot dogs in professional eating competitions. It’s easy to become depressed if we single out one area and focus on that disparity.
But worse, none of this is actionable. Lamenting the difference between my accomplishments and those of Blake Mycoskie doesn’t give me any tools to close the gap. And it fails to acknowledge all of the sacrifices that Blake made, and I’ve been unwilling to make, that have led to this difference.
The key is to focus on the behaviors that led to those successes. Only by dissecting that success and identifying the practices that led to it can we gain a tool to help us improve.
It’s not about faking it, or even copying someone else. It’s about bringing those traits out in ourselves. Whether it’s persistence, or confidence under pressure, or making meaningful connections, we all have these abilities. We just need to put them into practice.
Instead of just comparing your success to someone else’s, ask yourself how that person racked up the accomplishments that they did. What behaviors did they demonstrate that helped them come through the same struggles you’re going through now?
The question isn’t, how can I be like Jason Fried, but how would Jason Fried handle this situation?
When we can isolate the behaviors behind someone’s success, we gain a tool to help us change out of our current state. Which is much more helpful than getting upset over a difference in results.
The next time you start comparing yourself to others, stop and ask yourself, “What am I not seeing?” And figure out which behaviors will help you make your own changes.
Turn Comparison Bias to Your Advantage
“They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” – Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol
We’re all unlikely to stop comparing ourselves to others. At some level, it seems to be hardwired into our daily habits.
But we can use this to our advantage. We can limit the negative aspect by minimizing our areas of disappointment. And we can mindfully seek our the behaviors that will help us actually make a change.
The next time you start comparing yourself to others, stop and ask yourself a few questions: Is this an area that you actually want to improve? What else do you need to be happy? And what behaviors can you adopt that will help you make that change?
And if you keep bringing yourself down with comparisons, just tell yourself to shut up – you know, as you would to that annoying friend.