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Why the comparisons you make determine your success

There’s an uncomfortable truth about being human that none of us like to admit. It’s another one of those universal facts that none of us really escape.

Even though we try to pretend we’re above it.

This little habit-of-thought drives almost one hundred percent of our ambition and motivation. In other words, this is a powerful part of our psychology! It’s a mental pattern that dictates how successful we are in life and business.

We’re social creatures. It’s built into us – somewhere in the mammalian brain. Part of our psychological and evolutionary conditioning includes the capacity to play well with others.

We need to be social. Working together as a team has enabled humans to get ahead. As I’ve talked about before, it takes a surplus of food to create art and progress. It also takes a whole tribe to take down a woolly mammoth. Connect the dots.

We need to be social and luckily we’re good at it, but our built in social skills come with a huge price.

While we’re hanging out with others, connecting, hunting mammoths and getting romantic… we’re also comparing. We’ve been making comparisons for thousands of years.

We look at our peers and ask ourselves “am I like them?”

We analyze the size of their cave/tent/home and ask ourselves if ours is as good. We wonder who’s the better mammoth-hunter/arm-wrestler. We wonder who’s better looking.

This constant social comparison is just a way of life. It’s been going on so long we’ve created universal maxims around it. Keeping up with the Joneses, in some way, is a part of everyone’s life.

When we fast forward up the evolutionary spiral from our mammoth chasing ancestors, we arrive at the peak of human potential: The Entrepreneur!

Entrepreneurs can be the most enlightened, forward-thinking open minded rockstars imaginable. However, they’re just as susceptible to social comparison as their knuckle-dragging ancestors.

Entrepreneurs ask:

“Is she more successful than me?”

“Is his business model better than mine?”

“Are these other people making this s*** up as much as I am? Are they as afraid

The questions might have evolved considerably, but the need for comparison remains the same.

We meter the performance of others as a yard stick for our own achievement.

Our perception of our success is dictated by the comparisons we make with our peers.

Shocking, right? For those of us who pride ourselves on our individualism and unconventional thinking, this is a truth we’d rather not face. Don’t waste time asking yourself (or me!) if you can transcend social comparison. It’s impossible.

I say embrace it.

The most common symptom of an under-performing entrepreneur is complacency. Mixed with pangs of rampant ambition that tend to fizzle out and go nowhere. Sound familiar? This is the psychology of an entrepreneur making hopeless social comparisons.

Example:

Remember that best friend of yours from high school, who you always thought would be your partner in crime forever? You guys were going to take over the world, right?

Until you started kicking ass and they started being lazy. Until your ambition made it seem like you had nothing in common anymore. Until you stopped really being friends.

Now, I’ll bet it gives you a secret rush of satisfaction to think of where they ended up and where you did. You’re doing better. Make that comparison and even though you’ll say things like “I feel sorry for him”… deep down, you feel like a rockstar.

Now compare yourself to your biggest business hero. Pick a Richard Branson type of entrepreneur. Go look them up in wikipedia and find out what they were doing when they were your age.

How do you feel now?

Notice how a simple change of comparison has the power to radically alter your attitude?

Social comparison can take you from Rockstar to Trying Harder faster than you can say “I’m-not-good-enough”!

This is a good thing.

Ever heard the axiom that the average income of your circle of friends will dictate your own? Social comparison is the psychological explanation. Hang out with millionaires and pretty soon, you’ll make millions. It’s a fact. The hunger that the comparison creates will ignite the drive you need to achieve those results.

Likewise, if you spend your time measuring yourself against the people you’ve left behind in your dust trail… you’re quickly going to run out of steam.

The latter is dangerous, because it’s so seductive. It feels good to look back on where you came from and say “Imagine if they could see me now!”

My elementary school teachers left me with the distinct belief that I was destined to become a screw-up. If only they could see me now.

It’s a great feeling, just to imagine that. However, it isn’t a motivating feeling. Thinking about that makes me want to stretch, put my feet up and pour myself a drink. Well DONE Peter… you deserve it!

Then, I think about the awesome people I’ve connected with, my clients making millions changing the world and my tycoon business heros. I realize I’ve got a lot to do.

Somewhere, deep inside, a pilot light sparks. Motivation spreads like wild fire.

You’re making social comparisons whether you like it or not. It’s happening dozens of times a day. It’s time to start making these comparisons work for you.

The point of this post is simply to ask:

Who are you making comparisons with?

Have your comparisons been making your hungry… or complacent?

Who could you be using as a more empowering yard stick for your success?

Let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment below this post…

23 Comments

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  1. This is true. But I think it is important to remember that we don’t see the behind the scenes or cost of success that our successful friends may pay. I think it is important to try to be truly happy for people and not become so obsessed with gaining a higher level of success that we let more important things fall through the cracks. I know it’s easier said that done, but I’ve often found the grass isn’t as green on the other side as I thought.

    1. Hey Amber, you’ve got a great point here. It’s too easy to pay attention to the bright shiny rewards of success and ignore the hard work that our peers put in to get there.

  2. Great post as always, that iccky underlying competitive streak can make or break… And it is often shameful to own up to. As if one should be beyond such things. Lol. I really enjoy your humorous explorations. Such power in the shadow!
    Cheers, Gay

  3. I find this fascinating but I wonder what this looks like in action. In my experience, the measuring of my own success against someone else NEVER feels good because if you are in the state of mind, you are probs in the bad end of that comparison. I wouldn’t even know how to find someone to empower my comparisons because the act itself is usually meant to belittle. Just now, I watched a fairly successful person release a product to fanfare. Should I feel inspired to keep doing what I am doing or do I feel like everything I do can’t measure up? Actually, I felt like I was overcharging for something totally different. The comparison game is dangerous, so I would rather not play. Just gotta keep making a little island for myself and say it’s like comparing apples to oranges.

    1. Hi Shenee,

      My point here is that, unfortunately (or not!), we are ALL playing this comparison game…. whether we like it or not. Often it’s happening at the unconscious level. It is possible to find comparison opportunities that empower us, rather than drag us down. You’ve just got to look for them. 🙂

  4. Peter, I’ve spent a long time trying to learn not to compare my insides to other people’s outsides because I, like many, use those comparisons to beat myself up. There is a quantum difference in letting those comparisons inspire me– where I am driven to find out what “they” did so I can learn from it and raise my game…without shame or recrimination cuz I’m “not there yet.” Comparison is a two edged sword. So what Jedi mind trick would one use to keep their comparison from traveling to the Dark Side?

    1. Hey Cory…. this is a super intelligent comment and question. I love this:

      “I’ve spent a long time trying to learn not to compare my insides to other people’s outsides.”

      That’s a great way of putting it and highlights the truth that our comparisons are never really *accurate* – although all of my above points still stand.

      Jedi tricks eh? I think the biggest one would be establishing a strong belief in your own sense of “alright-ness”. People who have had their grounding and belief that “it’s okay to be where I’m at” destroyed (often by the personal development industry) really struggle with this… and that tends to make comparisons a little dark.

      So…

      Step 1: Believe that where you’re at is perfect and fine… for you.
      Step 2: Go get ambitious about where you’d like to be, by hanging with the people who are already there.
      Step 3: Watch the magic happen 🙂

  5. Yeah, this is why I stopped online gaming. I’m still geeky and enjoy the odd session of Dragon Age, but found online games were populated by people who compared themselves to each other. When someone’s main interest is sitting on their butt playing a game, this comparison tends to reinforce that fact – people sit on their butts even more to outdo their neighbours, until they barely move from the game.

    Scary stuff. I hated having my worth assessed in terms of being a loser, so I quit.

  6. Hi Peter

    I absolutely cannot, and will not compare myself to others. The minute I do, I’m a dead duck.

    Don’t get me wrong, there’s a dark imp on my shoulder constantly reminding me, what she has, that I don’t have, or what opportunities others have enjoyed, otherwise denied me.

    Oh uhhhh…. even mentioning that little devil brings all that crap to the fore.

    My rabid insecurities can’t afford the luxury of comparing myself to others, on any level.

    I love your blog by the way, very smart design, with bucket loads of value.

    Warm regards
    Catherine

    1. Hey Catherine, thanks for stopping by to comment 🙂

      My point here is that these comparisons are being made, if only unconsciously, whether we like it or not. I understand the powerful “away-from” mentality you have to this stuff – it’s a common attitude amongst go getters.

      That said, surrendering to comparisons and *making them work for you* is more powerful that denying them.

  7. Peter,

    I have to be sincere, I enjoyed this article so much!

    And to answer your question, the people I compare myself to are simply the persons I appreciate most, much more on a creative level than on a social level, even though no one can escape the social side of comparison. And, you happen to be one of those persons : )
    To cite James, I would say: “you ask very good questions!” All while conveying live images that sleep deep inside our ancestral DNA…

    “Somewhere, deep inside, a pilot light sparks.” ! I could ‘hear’ the sound of that spark! One of my dreams, and a fantastic intro to the best of scenarios

    Thanks for the cool inspiration, Peter!

    K’

  8. Hi Peter,
    As an entrepreneur, I have come face to face with how much I compare myself to others. As you say, we all do it, but if we are not consciously aware of it, we’re letting these comparisons run the show! In my personal experience, comparing myself to those in my industry that I admire and are very successful would leave me very deflated. I would immediately go into the “you could never be as good as them so don’t even bother trying” mode. Ever since I realized I was doing this, I have made a conscious effort to become aware of these thoughts, and change them into motivation, as you have talked about in this post. By shifting something that was once negative into a positive feeling, I have really noticed a major change in my mindset. So liberating 🙂 Thanks for the post!

    1. Hey Martina,

      It sounds to me like the comparisons you’re making aren’t serving you. That doesn’t mean that comparing is the problem – I’d look for people who are just slightly farther down the road to success than you are. Almost as if you’re hunting for bite-sized inspiration from your comparative peers.

      If I start comparing myself to Bill Gates, it’s pretty hard to feel successful! Pick your comparisons wisely 😛

      1. Microsoft Vs Apple, the old story of ‘rivality’ may remember us what’s the real meaning of excellence in the long run, Silicon Valley has a lot to teach: being sneakily opportunistic VS being genuinely creative? I wonder…

        But I believe that giving ourselves permission to choose Rivals and engaging them on a field where we can win, may be an excellent strategy to try, as opposed to play with your rival on a field where we may realistically fail, because of many, many parameters (but failure is not evident at all, just like success, if we don’t try and test, we may never know…)

        Our fiercest Rival is ourselves, if we can beat our ‘reductive’ negative self, we may discover the extraordinary potential of our exponential positive self. The key is to learn how to measure the risks and how to deal with them, in the longest run.

        I say choosing our rivals on the creative field determines our success.
        Hmmm, this leads to making allies, having common ennemies… and unlimited logical stories : )

        What do you think Peter?

  9. Peter, you have a scary way of writing about *exactly* what’s been swirling around in my own head. The Comparison Trap, as I call it, gets me in its clutches just about every day. Often several times a day! (Hey, I’m an Enneagram 4, and envy is our core issue!)

    I love how you’ve turned it around, though — the reminder that the Comparison Trap can actually be a tool to propel you forward, IF you use it that way. And that, of course, comparing yourself to someone who’s not as far along makes you feel great! Everything’s relative…

    Plus, as you say, we’re social creatures, hard-wired to compare. (Heck, we’re hard-wired to compare *everything*, not just ourselves and other people! Look at metaphors — just a comparison between two unrelated things.)

    This is important!

    If we can remember that falling into the Comparison Trap is inevitable, then at least we won’t add the additional trauma of beating ourselves up for it!

    Years ago a therapist I was seeing loaned me a book called the Snow White Syndrome, by Betsy Cohen. I think it’s out of print, and I remember it being somewhat dated in certain ways when I read it, BUT, Cohen’s thesis — that you can use envy to figure out what you want in your life and how to create it for yourself — was tremendously helpful.

    Your post was kinda like a modern jolt of the same message. Thanks!

  10. Amazing post Peter.

    For some time now I’ve tried to figure out some magic way to be unaffected by social comparison. But it just doesn’t work, it’s innate, and it will always be present. But when I read this I took a step back and looked at just what my social comparisons were doing.

    I have a BA in psych, and am trying to figure out whether to continue to find my way in management consulting or go back to school and counsel. Frozen in indecision I have become complacent.

    But when I look around and see friends in grad schools, others with jobs, and a girlfriend with a masters practicing clinical counseling – I think to myself, wait, what am I doing, waiting around for life to come to me?

    That’s when I realized I’ve got to push forward research psychology programs, apply to jobs, get my hands dirty.

    If it wasn’t for that social context, I wouldn’t be driven to fulfillment, I would be satisfied with being the big fish in a small pond. But after reading your post, I look at it this way – the world is always a gigantically vast and intricate ocean, no matter how big you get.

    Cheers!

  11. Peter,

    You hit the nail right between the eyes with this one. I was silently thinking I hate this guy (not is a bad way, in a pretty good way actually) while reading this. You took me back on a 10yr ride from the ending of high school through my early 20s. I realised how the comparisions I wasmaking all through that time (and yes now) driveme to either grow exponentially and not at all. Thank you sir, now I know how to draw upon empowering comparisons going forward.

  12. Peter,
    Great Article!
    I’m only 17 but my motivation and drive for success if like no one Ive ever meet. However I get chills down my spine when I watch documentaries on successful entrepreneurs after comparing myself to them, the personality similarities are truly inspiring. Sometimes I think in my head that the only thing that makes me different from people like Bill Gates, Richard Branson or Warren Buffet is the fact that their rich and I’m not. In spirit Ive got everything that they have because I know for a fact that life will not pass me by without achieving the success I imagine in my head. When I compare myself extremely successful entrepreneurs it just allows me to reassure myself that its all possible. My parents tell me I live in a fantasy world when I compare myself to people like them, but I believe that it takes a certain personality trait to become exactly what you want to become… When my friends tell me what they want to do for a living I subconsciously say to myself “why dont you set your goals higher” but I would never say that to anyone. Everyone kinda lives in their own world some dream big and some dream small… Its what makes us different…

    Great Blog! and beautiful design…

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