“What’d you get on your test?”
I started labeling repeat offenders as TSNs – Test Score Naggers. Even early on in grade school, I avoided TSNs because something didn’t sit well with how adamant they were in knowing my score. When I did better than they, they would seemingly look defeated. When they did better than me, they would seemingly feel validated. I never understood – WHAT DOES MY TEST SCORE HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH YOURS? WHY DOES MY # AFFECT HOW YOU FEEL?
Turns out, this didn’t stop at school. Even in the professional world, you may meet people whose perogative is to find out how much you’re making within the first minute of meeting.
My answer nowadays is usually “enough.”
Whether I’m doing well for myself or not, I don’t want to promote what I believe to be the wrong measuring stick – one that doesn’t align with my personal definition of success. As I wrote in How to Move Beyond Self Comparison – Part 1, having a weak sense of self, manifested through ignoring my own passions, made me a prime candidate for self-comparison.
But even when I found my direction, the self-comparison didn’t end. In my new career (which I enjoy) I am still feel like a beginner. The opportunities for self-comparison still abound.
Like many of the worthwhile challenges in life, the goal is not to get rid of bad emotions altogether – because it’s impossible. Just like how one can’t get rid of stress, one can learn to manage stress. I don’t believe self-comparison can be “cured,” but it sure can be managed.
In this second installment, we explore 3 strategies – including useful mental models – to manage self-comparison.
Ivy shared that thoughts of self-comparison lead her down two paths: whether it’s something that matters to her, or something that doesn’t actually matter that much to her. It sounds simple, but this clear distinction not only helps avoid pointless stress, but also gives you the power to choose what type of self-comparison is worth it.
Self-Comparison Type A: Something you care about
You might compare yourself to someone who’s doing something that MATTERS to you. This strikes a chord. It can be your job, your craft, a personal skill you want to develop. If you care about it, self-comparison usually means you want to improve yourself in that way.
In How We Judge Others Is How We Judge Ourselves, Mark Manson said that the way you measure yourself is how you will measure others, and how you will assume others measure you. Using this knowledge, you can make self-comparison work for you. Pay attention to what you judge others by – be it looks, career success, healthy relationships – because that in turn identifies what matters to you. I often find myself subconsciously judging others by how entrepreneurial they are, or by the quality of their romantic relationships. Turns out, those are things that I value a lot.
Ivy’s example, when she sees someone who lives a healthy lifestyle: “That person eats really healthy… I should try to be more like that person because that is a trait I want to have, and I think I would be better off if I did.”
This moves us from self comparison -> self improvement, from jealousy -> inspiration. Instead of feeling like the lesser, recognize moments of self-comparison as opportunity – you just spotted someone who might be in your tribe. They might help you realize your goals and dreams. Message them. Meet up with them. Surround yourself with the type of people who are experiencing the type of success you want.
So self-comparison isn’t all bad. Let it inform you what you care about, and let it give you an opportunity to connect with like-minded people.
Self-Comparison Type B: Something you don’t care about
This is what we all want to stay away from. Why do we stress over that LinkedIn acquaintances’ new promotion even if it’s in a completely different field? Or feel “behind” watching friends get married, when marriage is the last of your priorities right now? We stress about things that don’t even align with our personal goals and values.
The best strategy is to actively think “I’m happy for them.” It might feel disingenuous at first. But that’s with all new things. Over time, being happy for other people gives you a twofold bonus: one, you are a more positive and happy person, which will definitely make you more enjoyable at parties. Two – saying “I’m happy for them,” helps you recognize that others are doing things that make them happy, which is a different definition than what makes you happy.
I’ll quote Ivy once again: good self-comparison looks something like “Wow, you completed an ironman triathlon? That’s way more intense than anything I’ve ever done, but I don’t think I will ever be interested in going that. That’s just not me; I would rather sit on the couch and watch the entire Breaking Bad series.”
“Facebook? Yeah I totally thought of that five year’s ago…”
Everyone has that one friend or crazy uncle who claims that they thought of million-dollar products before they got released, and somehow feel robbed of their ideas.
OK, OK…that crazy friend was me. Until I realized I was insulting the work of others through superficial self-comparison. It makes absolutely no sense that someone else’s success should take away from my own, and vice versa. When you are successful, do you see that as you taking success from your friends? Hell no, that’s ridiculous. So why do the same do yourself? For the wantrepreneurs out there, I realized that it was an insult to think that I deserve success by coming up with an idea, as opposed to someone who has poured their souls into doing something great.
Looking at things this way made me realize that over 95% of the time, the people I compared myself to completely deserve the success they’ve made.
An interviewer asked Dustin Moskovitz what it felt like to be part of Facebook’s “overnight success.” His answer: “If by ‘overnight success’ you mean staying up and coding all night, every night for six years straight, then it felt really tiring and stressful.”
All the writers and artists out there might resonate with this:
Self-comparison often afflicts us because we compare ourselves to the wrong things. Comparing your first draft to someone’s masterpiece doesn’t make sense. Comparing your first practice GMAT score to your friend’s 750 doesn’t make sense. What makes sense is to focus on what goes in the background of the success you want – which is usually tons of hard work and discipline.
IMAGINE the terrible scenario: the lives of everyone you know starts deteriorating. The rich friends you were once jealous of go broke. The annoying, happily married couple end up in a nasty divorce. Shit is hitting the fan – turns out the lives of those you were measuring yourself against are suddenly going downhill.
Does that make you happy?
The answer, if you’re like most sane people, should be a resounding NO. The value of your friends doing well is intrinsically worth more to you than their lives sucking. Even if some of us are assholes, most of us want good things for each other.
The best way to manage self-comparison, in turn, is to realize how fortunate you are to be around people aren’t just doing well…but WHO ARE DOING BETTER THAN YOU. The better the people around you, the better you’ll get.
Ever heard of the Rule of 5 Friends? It states that your life will most likely end up like the 5 people you spend the most time with. If the 5 people closest to you are miserable, it won’t be a surprise that you might be miserable. If your 5 closest friends are millionaires (not a guarantee you’ll be rich), you’re probably better off than hanging out with 5 broke individuals.
So imagine this. A community around you in which people are striving to become better every day. The friend applying for her MBA to make a career change. The friend trying to be a great husband. Your coworkers who are ambitiously trying to make it big with their own startups. It’s in your best interest that they all succeed. One obvious reason is that they can better help you if you pursue similar ventures. I completely subscribe to the belief that the value of your network translates to the value of your net worth.
It makes me REALLY excited for my friends to go out there and consistently kick ass. And I want to kick ass for them, because I want to be better equipped to help them if they ever need it.
Let’s close with the simplest, most powerful strategy of all to deal with self-comparison: be grateful for what you already have in life.
If you’re reading this, you are probably privileged enough to have time for personal development. The self help industry attracts those who are relatively high up in Maslow’s hierarchy, such that few are struggling to find reliable shelter, food and work.
While there is an endless # of opportunities to compare ourselves to others and feel shitty about it, there’s an equally long list of things we can appreciate in our daily lives. Whether it’s being in decent health or having an education, a lot of our stress from self-comparison seemingly melts away when we step back and appreciate what we have. We might not have it all, but we can take joy in what we have.
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