I once heard John Lee Dumas, host of the podcast Entrepreneur on Fire, say, “Compare to despair.” He was describing what happens psychologically when we compare ourselves to someone else. Why does it lead to despair?
Well, it wouldn’t be so bad if we compared ourselves to the worst of society. Hitler and the Nazi’s seems to be a common way to elevate ourselves from feeling terribly about ourselves. I’ll come back to this pathology in a moment, but we usually don’t go this route. We usually compare ourselves to someone we admire, who is doing better than us. At least they are appearing to do better in one domain of comparison.
For example, imagine a student who is going to college and is struggling to do well. This student doesn’t compare herself to her family who has never gone to college. Doing so would make her grateful to have already gone further than her parents. No, she looks at the other students, real or imagined, and says, “I need to do better because I’m not as good as the other students.”
Now, the first half of that belief is correct – “I need to do better.” The problem is the reason why she must take action, which is because of ____________ (insert a comparison to another human being). The first half is right because it represents a value judgement to improve, which is good. Human beings are in a constant state of improvement. We are always learning and improving skills. When we see someone stagnant or disintegrating, we see that as pathological. We naturally see that as a step backwards, even if the person is staying in the same place. It’s not obvious to me why staying the same is not considered acceptable. I think it has something to do with the idea that all living things grow and change. In fact, we accept that any living thing – tree, animal, etc. – is only natural when it is changing and growing. So, this seems right when we apply it to our psychological development.
It is the natural thing for humans to progress, grow, and change.
But, if we accept that growth and development is natural a priori, then why do we not believe that disintegration is natural? I’m not saying that falling apart or dying is not painful. I am willing to accept this because death is natural. Death is the fullest expression of entropy. But, once you are dead, your state remains fixed. Disintegration is a natural part of the life cycle, but a fixed state, as in death or being stuck is not.
And, although we accept the pain of life as a normal component, it only serves us so much as we learn to reduce unnecessary pain. Meaning, we will tolerate a lot of suffering as long as there is a justifiable reason for it. What is that justifiable reason? It is when the suffering is endured for a greater meaning.
We practice delayed gratification in the present for a better future. We sacrifice a smaller thing in the present to negotiate for something better in the future. Exercise is one of those exchanges. We provide blood, sweat, and tears in the present to live a future with a better looking, healthier body in the future. The trap is to not compare your present self with someone else’s present, which is actually a future state of their past self. This is measuring by the gap.
The gap is the distance between what your want to be, which often takes the form as a successful person in the present, and who you are right now. The problem with this is that you don’t know what the other person had to go through to become who they are today. They may have paid the proper sacrifice to be where they are at now. You don’t know, so we don’t establish a context for their growth. It seems like they were just born this morning with all their positive attributes you envy. We rarely take the time to observe, investigate, and reflect on what it really took to achieve what the successful have.
No, the only proper comparison is the present you to the past you as you progress to a future you. Yes, have goals, an ideal future you to pursue. But, only measure your progress from where you have come from, not where you want to go.
Here’s an current example I am struggling to maintain proper perspective with:
About two months ago I tore my ACL while playing with my daughter at a trampoline park. These legs aren’t as young as they used to be. Really though, I haven’t been working out like I should, which has led to weak legs, which leads to torn ACL when jumping. I have reaped the benefits of my laziness and lack of foresight.
Now, I walk with limited range and strength. I’ve been doing physical therapy to get stronger. And, I will need surgery soon to replace my ACL. Overall, my total recovery looks like a year from now. That’s a long time to consider getting back to 100%.
I look at other dads playing with their kids. I see men walking around and working out with no problems. I have the problem, so when I look around I compare my present status to other people’s present abilities. I see a gap when I do this, and it doesn’t help. But…when I look back to how I felt just a few weeks ago, it becomes obvious how much I have gained. The result is that I go from envy and sadness to appreciation and satisfaction. It is night and day.
Therefore, you must do the same when you compare. Measure from the gain, not the gap. It is your choice to be grateful and energized or miserable and deenergized.