Better than who?
Are you richer than your neighbor? Are you smarter than your friend? Are you happier than them? We are taught by the society to compare and expect to be compared. We narrow down to an area, measure any difference and ask: who is better?
When we compare objects or services to see which one is superior, that is sensible, but when we compare ourselves to someone else…that is tricky.
For one thing, we have more someones available to match ourselves against than ever. In the distant past, we might have compared ourselves to another member of the tribe, or its leader. Today, we are free to compare ourselves to the rest of the world, which is a huge pool of talent and chance.
Whatever trait or quality we compare, we might instinctively start with the people closest to us. Am I better in some way than my sibling, neighbor, friend? But once we run out of that group of people, perhaps judging ourselves well off, one glance at FB wall can be all it takes to erase any shadow of satisfaction. Even if we judge ourselves better in some respect than our FB friends, we invariably arrive at an answer we don’t like. We find that we are not as rich as Bill Gates, or as peaceful as Dalai Lama. There are so many people to contrast ourselves against is so large that there is almost always someone better.
This culture of comparison is everywhere. I believe that there is a fundamental issue with it.
Given a tendency to focus on what we’d like to have and like to be, instead of appreciating what we have, the answers to our ‘am I better’ questions can be unpleasant, or down-right depressing. Just today, I saw a video of a Chinese man with no hands, creating elaborate clay figures on a stick. Sure enough, there were comparing comments in the spirit of:
‘This guy can do that, and I’m sitting here, lazy, not able to do it.’ ‘I couldn’t do that even if I wanted to.’
That kind of realization can serve as motivation, but also as a fuel for depression. The problem is that this comparing goes in outward direction, instead of inward.
This obsession about others, only escalated by social media, also leads us on a path to become others, which may not be the best path for us. I’m not Bill Gates, but if that is my point of reference, it’s likely that I will prioritize choices that lead to acquiring wealth, instead of preserving my health or making awesome friends, regardless of the fact that my circumstances and time frame are different.
Too often, we fail to see that in fact, we are comparing the incomparable — two complex people in complex setting — and more importantly, that we do not need to be better than other people at something. This train of thought pushes us further from ourselves, from introspection and reflection. I don’t mean to say that all the answers can be found by sitting quietly, introspecting our mind, I merely mean to say this — the base for comparisons should be chiefly our own self, and not some mythical person half across the world.
The reason for that is simple — we can work on ourselves. We can do something better than we did it yesterday, and from that should stem our self-confidence, instead of relying on the judgment of other people. The moment others enter the picture, we lose that certainty and risk our happiness and self-worth. Even if we do exactly the same thing as someone else, we may not get the same results. Randomness plays a role, how large depends on the similarity of our circumstances.
With that, we can use this deeply rooted tendency towards comparisons to help ourselves.
Questions like ‘Am I really worse than that person, or can I do something just as well?’ can cause a rush of motivation that leads to productivity. As an example, when I saw the Chinese man making clay beautiful figures, despite his disability, my inner monologue went along the lines of ‘damn he is incredible, I should go and learn with the same focus as him.’ It may sound trite, but this frame of mind — ‘they’re so awesome, I should do something to become better’ — turns the outward comparison into fuel for productivity, rather then depression, and stresses that you or I can do something, that we are in control of our actions.
It’s a natural, or perhaps cultural, part of our lives that we compare ourselves to others. However, we’d be wise to remember that on this planet there is most likely someone better than us in some way, and so use comparing only to push our own limits.
If we have to compare, we should first compare ourselves to ourselves. The success of others is only a source of motivation. If you can use it to your advantage, you win. And if you win over yourself, you can’t lose.