"Comparison Is the Thief of Joy"
Theodore Roosevelt: "Comparison Is the Thief of Joy"

"Comparison Is the Thief of Joy"

Last week, during a coaching call, my client (who gave me permission to tell this story) told me about encountering two of his surgical colleagues (who are in the same specialty and division) eating lunch at their computers. The sight of them triggered him a lot. Why? Because he knew they made more money than him.

Whenever he sees them, the hair on his back stands up, and his brain growls and snarls all by its lonesome in the silence of the dark vault of his skull where no one can hear. Except him.

This is the point where most of us launch the creation of a pleasing story, a movie if you will, outlining the injustice of the situation. If we are really into fictional script writing, we will even imbue the characters in our little movie - those two surgeons munching away blithely at their box lunch - with all sorts of character flaws and personality defects that further fuel the staggering injustice. The judgment train leaves the station, driven by the autopilot "compare yourself to others" module installed in our brains centuries ago.

But just because our brains are bitching and complaining and judging away doesn't mean we have to listen or act. The bitching, complaining, and judging only serve to help us feel better, in the moment anyway. Remember, feelings are different from emotions. Feelings come about from the meaning and stories our brains tattoo onto the events in our lives. A lot of it is made-up bullshit.

Comparison of ourselves or our circumstances to others is one of the surest and fastest ways I know of to either make yourself feel miserable (craving something that someone else has) or to make us feel superior and better about ourselves (which inevitably will make you feel miserable). I have known people who have turned comparisons and judgments of others into an Olympic sport. They are hard to be around.

I asked him: "How did comparing your salary to theirs make you feel?" Answer: "like shit." How did it make you feel about your two colleagues? "Resentful."

Here is the thing: My client wants to forge a different path for himself beyond the standard academic path. He is an academic surgeon who cares deeply about education and his craft. He is the associate program director of the general surgery training program. He is working with me to help guide him on this journey.

Three weeks ago, he had a major career decision to make. He was offered the job of program director. He was torn about what to do. So I asked him - is this a hell yes or a hell no opportunity.

The speed of his response was limited only by the time it took for the sound waves of my voice to get inside his neural tissue, flit around to the right centers, get some neurotransmitters flowing, and generate enough neural energy to open his mouth, inhale, and nearly yell Hell No.

Later I learned that his wife, also a physician, had overheard the part of the conversation with me about the salaries of his two colleagues. Apparently, he had complained to her about this "injustice" and she told him the same thing, though in different words: stop comparing your salary and yourself to others. It is only making you miserable. Now he finally really heard her.

There are 5 important things to learn from this story:

  1. Have the courage to hear the message, regardless of where it comes from. Our partners and significant others know us well, perhaps better than we know ourselves. Hearing opinions or criticisms from them is often exceedingly difficult because of the emotional nature of the relationship. An objective, thoughtful opinion can easily be perceived as a judgment because of the sensitivity of the relationship. The same is true of those we don't like or respect. The lesson here is to develop the skill to stop, listen, and pull the words out of your emotional baggage, and ask yourself if there is any truth to what they are observing. Simple, but not easy. If one can develop the ego strength for this, it can be a gold mine for developing self-awareness.
  2. Resist the lure of the Standardization Covenant. My client was battling the Standardization Covenant. A covenant is a solemn binding agreement, and the Standardization Covenant, borne of the industrial age, states that if you pick a destination (i.e., become an academic surgeon), work hard, and don't quit or deviate, you will succeed. What does success mean? Money, titles, prestige, etc. It does not promise fulfillment. The Standardization Covenant sets the stage for relentless if-then living: if I get into med school, if I take the position of Program Director, then I will be ____. If-then living is a recipe for a life full of duality: momentary episodes of happiness followed quickly by deflation and misery, and then on to the next thing. This path will never lead to true, long-lasting joy or contentment.
  3. Focus on Bigger Than Self Goals. In the remarkable book The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal writes about the life-enhancing impact of Bigger-Than-Self Goals vs Self Goals: "A Bigger-Than-Self goal is not an objective goal, like getting a promotion, or a reward, like being praised by your boss. It is more about how you see your role within your community—what you want to contribute, and the change you want to create." When you strive from this mindset, you increase your chance of reaching both your professional (self) and Bigger-Than-Self Goals—and you also experience more joy and meaning along the way. My client has a vision for education in the world of surgery that transcends his self or professional goals, and by striving for that vision, he takes the focus off of himself (focusing on ourselves has been shown, overwhelmingly, to lead to anxiety, depression, and general misery) and onto the impact his efforts could have on other surgeons.
  4. Be aware of your Status-Seeking tendencies. It is very hard to resist the lure of Self Goals, especially under two circumstances: when we find ourselves "keeping up with the Jones" by comparing what we have or don't have to our neighbors or to our colleagues, and when we are biogenetically predisposed to the pursuit of status. In the Big 5-based personality assessment Principles You, one of the traits measured is Status-Seeking, which is a measure of one's preference to please, “keep up” appearances, and be liked, admired, and respected. My client's percentile is 73%, which is high. This means he is very predisposed to care a great deal about salary inequities and other comparisons. Sometimes, these inequities clearly need to be dealt with on a broader level, but in the pursuit of what really matters to us in our lives (our Bigger-Than-Self goals), it only gets in the way by fueling resentment, anger, and frustration. Not only that, but Bigger-Than-Self goals have been shown scientifically to create more hope, curiosity, optimism, gratitude, and inspiration.

The choice is clear. Stay mired in the quicksand of comparisons, or broaden your contributions and your positive emotions by having the discipline to stay with your Bigger-Than-Self goals.


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