Evaluating our success by comparing our performance is taught to us early. We’re trained, from a young age, not to look at our achievement as a stand-alone concept, but rather, how it stacks up against everyone else. At a recent event I listened to Jenne Fromm discuss Death by Comparison, and it changed the way I look at myself.
Fromm framed the concept, and danger, of comparison simply. There is a self in each of us, a self we’re meant to be not the self we think we’re supposed to be. Often the “supposed to self” image takes over and drives us, that’s bad. It’s bad because it narrows our focus, we look at little pieces and parts of individuals to compare ourselves against. Rather than viewing others as holistic beings we look at only their best, most enviable parts and create a super highlight reel of a human to compare against. It’s not only unmanageable, it’s unreasonable, and it’s exhausting. Jenne pointed out we have a finite amount of energy to spend when we expend that energy comparing ourselves to others, we rob ourselves from using it in a more productive manner. Not only does comparison drain energy, it also lowers the bar. Rather than being the self we’re meant to be when we compare the best we’ll ever be is one better than someone else.
When you look at living by comparison in Fromm’s light it seems silly. Why would we do something that narrows our focus, exhausts us, and, ultimately, handicaps us? Habit. From the moment we are born we are compared to others. We’re put into percentiles. As we develop we are benchmarked against others in our age group on what we “should” be doing. In school we’re graded against the class, put on a bell curve. Where do we stack up? Comparison is so ingrained in us that by the time we become adults it’s second nature.
Habits are hard to break and comparison is a habit. How do we do it? Jenne has three tips:
- Change your yardstick – Rather than measuring against someone else, measure against your best self. Create your yardstick by deciding what you do, for whom, and why. The more you measure against others the farther off track you get. Define your yardstick, measure by it.
- Start to be really good at being bad – If you give up when you’re ‘bad’ at something, what does that say about you? Embrace the imperfect and see what you can learn from it.
- Celebrate – Rather than compare against others, look for reasons to celebrate people’s differences.
From a personal perspective it’s easy to see where comparison is dangerous; from a business perspective the danger in comparison is a little less clear. After all, we’re competing for consumers with other similar business, right? Yes, but if we base strategy solely on what someone else is doing we’ll never create our best offering. We’ll only ever be little better than the guy down the street and while that works for a bit, it isn’t sustainable. Start to reexamine your yardstick. Who do you really want to be? Begin to measure your success against that, rather than against others.