As humans, we’re wired to compare ourselves to others. Our brains are basically little comparison machines.
What do you do when you see an apple and a baseball next to each other? You lump them into categories.
They’re both round so they fit into the category of round things. And they’re about the same size too. But the apple is edible and the baseball is not. All that happens in our minds in an instant.
This inclination to compare things was beneficial for our evolution as a species. It helped us spot patterns, think creatively and perform a bunch of other high level cognitive tasks.
The problem is that our comparison machine of a brain doesn’t stop at objects. We compare ourselves to other people as well. This had important evolutionary benefits as well.
When we lived in small tribes, we had to know where we stood in relation to all our group members and act appropriately. Otherwise we risked getting kicked out of the tribe. And without the protection and support of the tribe, we didn’t survive.
There's Always Somebody Better
In today’s world though, we don’t just compare ourselves to the 100 people in our tribe. Technology allows us to compare ourselves with nearly everyone on earth.
If you think you’re really smart, you’re not when compared to that 14 year old prodigy who already has a degree in astrophysics from Harvard.
If you think you’re really athletic, you’re not when you see videos of this dude.
Before, when you compared yourself with your immediate tribe members, you could pretty much always find something that you were the best at. If it wasn’t spear throwing, maybe it was tracking. If it wasn’t weaving clothes, maybe it was cooking the best soup. As a result, you could feel good about yourself and your abilities in some area by comparing them with everyone else.
Nowadays, that’s impossible. Because of our inclination to compare ourselves to others, we judge our success based on how we rank in the hierarchy.
What makes it even more difficult, is that we’re not comparing our whole selves to their whole selves. Everyone else can carefully curate their image on social media to make themselves look awesome. No matter how crappy someone's life really is, with the right filter and 20 different takes, they can make themselves look cool on Instagram.
So you end up comparing your life with everyone else’s highlight reel. That’s not a fair fight.
This same process happens on the basketball court. There’s always someone who has better handles, someone with a sweeter jump shot, someone who’s averaging more points per game than you. When we compare ourselves to others, we end up feeling like crap.
The bottom line is that comparing ourselves to others is usually bad. There’s a possibility that comparison may drive a self-conscious obsession to become the best, but that’s an unhealthy path to take and will blow up in your face.
What's more likely is that you'll live in a constant state of anxiety and lack of confidence. I can never be as good as that guy. There’s no way I can do what he does.
How Do We Deal With It?
I’ve been down this road myself. I’ve been comparing myself to other basketball players for as long as I can remember. For the last few years, I knew it was detrimental to my confidence and performance but I couldn’t get past my natural instinct to compare myself with others. I’m sure there are people who have succeeded at doing this, but I’d guess that most fail.
So maybe the best way to deal with our tendency to compare ourselves with others isn’t to fight it.
Instead, what if we could redirect it in a more positive direction? If you want to stop a train from running someone over, you don’t jump in front and push against it really hard. You pull the lever and flip the tracks so that it redirects around the potential victim. That’s what my goal is here.
So, here’s what I propose. Instead of struggling to avoid comparing ourselves to others altogether, we just choose the measures on which we compare. More specifically, we choose to compare ourselves on things that are fully within our control.
- Instead of comparing your athleticism, compare how many shots you get up before and after practice.
- Instead of comparing your scoring average, compare how much energy you bring to practice.
- Instead of comparing your attractiveness, compare how many times you made someone’s day.
- Instead of comparing your playing time, compare how little you can complain.
- Instead of comparing your scholarship offers, compare your attitude when you step onto the court.
All we’re doing here is pulling the lever and redirecting the train tracks. The comparison train keeps chugging along, but we're shifting it in a more positive direction.
At the core, what this process does is shift your values. Instead of placing importance on superficial notions or things that you don’t have full control over, this turns the locus of control internally.
You have control over the measures by which you compare yourself. If you compare yourself on these measures, nobody else can impact whether you succeed or fail. Only you. That's extremely powerful.
Comparisons usually happen to us below the level of consciousness. We compare ourselves against others without even realizing it. As a result, we’re doing battle against the comparisons on their terms.
By taking control of our comparisons, we can decide the rules. We choose the field on which we do battle. That’s empowering.