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Comparison: Does it Help You? Or Hurt You?

Humans have been called the comparing creatures. Our brains are hardwired to compare ourselves to others, and assess how we stack up. It’s how the human race evolves. We build on the accomplishments of others.

Can you imagine one lioness looking at another lioness wondering, “How does she get her cubs’ coats so shiny?” Lionesses and lions are majestic beasts, but they’re pretty much running their lives the exact same way they were 500 years ago.

The challenge for humans is, the very same behavior that helps us improve ourselves, individually and collectively, (comparing) is also the behavior that erodes our spirit and pits us mercilessly and often needlessly against one another.

Here are two personal examples:

Within the first week of my first job I was comparing my work to my colleagues. I worked for Procter & Gamble; the standards were very high. Comparing myself to others helped me up my game.  A group of peers with high standards can help you rise to the occasion.

As a young parent, I also compared myself. How do other parents talk to their toddlers?  What do other parents do when their child melts down in public?

Comparing helps you see what’s possible. Which behaviors do you want to emulate and which behaviors do you want to avoid? There’s nothing like watching someone else’s eight-year-old throw a hissy fit to help you realize you need to rein in your four-year-old before she turns into a brat.

In my case, had I been left to my own devices, I suspect I wouldn’t have learned as many skills at work, and I would have been a much slacker parent.

Comparing is how we make sense of the world. The reason you call someone tall is because they’re taller than others around them. The reason you consider your boss nice may be because your last boss was terrible. Every observation you make is in reference to another observation. To say stop comparing, is akin to saying please stop having logical thought.

Yet, we’ve all been told by well-meaning parents and teachers. “Don’t compare yourself to others.”  The irony is, the very same people probably routinely pointed out well-mannered children and good students as examples for us to emulate.

One of the things I love about business is, there’s no pretense about comparing. It’s part of the standard operating model. Every good organization knows, your customers are comparing you to the competition. You better be measuring yourself or you’ll fall behind. Anyone who does any hiring or promoting knows you’re always comparing people against performance standards and each other.

But constant comparison can be exhausting. Living your life with a constant refrain of – Am I good enough?  Do I measure up?  Am I winning or am I falling behind? –inhibits your ability to be fully present.

Constant comparing will rob you of the happiness and joy found in real human connection. It will keep you from experiencing the serotonin effect of gratitude. And it will erode feelings of justifiable pride in your accomplishments.

Aristotle said, “Every virtue carried to extreme, is a vice.” Comparing helps you when it spurns you to beneficial actions, like exercising more or speaking more concisely in meetings. Comparing hurts you when it causes you to judge yourself or others as unworthy. The difference is both dramatic and nuanced.

Next time you find yourself comparing, ask yourself: Is comparing going to help me navigate the world in a more effective way? If so, assess away.

If not, it’s OK to just be yourself.