The Hazards of Comparing

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In my freshman year of college I had to take the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment. Two of my top five strengths were “Competition” and “Achiever.” Over the years I’ve had to come to terms with the blessings and curses of being a competitive overachiever.

“No matter how hard you tried, no matter how worthy your intentions, if you reached your goal but did not outperform your peers, the achievement feels hollow,” reads the description of the StrengthsFinder Competition Theme.

I have no doubt that my competitive nature helped me all throughout school. It served as a motivator when subjects seemed far from interesting and kept me focused on my education. But after I finished school and completed all my professional certifications, I was left with an emptiness. Without courses, I no longer had a yardstick to measure my success. There weren’t assignments and projects to overachieve on, there were no more “A”s to show or professors to tell me what a great job I had done.

I had to find a new way to compete and achieve. The obvious way to do this was to compare myself with those around me, my peers and friends, but I quickly realized how pointless that was.

Our Financial Perspectives

One of the incredible privileges I have in my career is getting an intimate look at other people’s finances, learning what is truly important to them and observing how they choose to live their lives.

I’ll never forget the conversation I had with one client couple. Their net worth was in the eight figures, and they lived well within their means. At the end of the meeting, they looked at me and said “We know we don’t have that much, but do you think we’ll be okay?”

At that moment I realized that, no matter how wealthy you are, there will always be someone who has more. Someone who has more money, a nicer house, a better education, a better career. Even people with lots of money feel this way.

I’ve worked with families who have far more money than I was raised with and people who have incredibly successful careers. I quickly realized that the happiest people were the ones who weren’t in a financial race. Yes, they had financial goals, but the goal wasn’t to simply make more money, the goal was rooted in a deeper value.

The happiest clients were the ones who knew what was important in their lives and pursued those values rather than simply valuing the accumulation of more money. They knew, accepted and weren’t bothered by the fact that there will always be someone out there with more money.

I’ve also seen people who were miserable in their careers despite making incredible salaries. Some would say they were winning at the comparison game, but losing at life.

Dangers in Financial Competition/Comparison

The very nature of competition is being aware of other people. But there is danger in judging your life by comparing it to other people’s.

It defines what you chase

It becomes far too easy to chase financial goals because you are trying to keep up with those around you, or worse, just because you want to beat someone. Jealousy, competition and keeping step with your social circles become the motivators instead of your core values.

It says where you're at isn’t good enough

Competition runs on the same premise as the advertising industry: that you need more. You need to be more successful and have more money and move faster through your career. Competition can easily sit at odds with contentment.

It defines happiness

Far too often, happiness is found in knowing that we are better off than others. A shallow sense of satisfaction is derived from knowing that when people visit our house, they will be impressed because it is nicer/bigger/better than theirs.

It breeds discontentment

The same is true when you don’t “win.” Comparison can breed discontent when you realize that your home will never compare with others, or that your career path with never result in a salary like your brother-in-law’s. Comparison shifts our focus from our lives to others.

Looking at Comparison in a Different Way

The best example I have of re-framing comparison is my mom. My mom has three daughters-in-law who are incredibly talented and amazing women. She has acknowledged that it would be easy for her to compare herself to them, to always try to play catch up with their beautifully decorated houses and various accomplishments.

One day, while talking with my mom, she said “I decided that instead of feeling insecure about my house not being as nicely decorated as theirs, I was going to be their biggest cheerleaders. I want to be the one leading the way in telling them how incredible they are and showing them off to the people I know.”

What a great perspective.

She continued by telling me how freeing it was when she made the decision to be their greatest supporter instead of subtly comparing herself with them.

How to Avoid the Hazards of Comparing

The first step in redefining the comparison game is to know what you value and the goals that you want to pursue. Know what is important to you.

The second step is to think differently about other’s successes. When you find yourself observing other people’s situations, instead of getting the emotional high or low, stop and think about what values the other person is holding to make those decisions. Are their lives or decisions ones that would fulfill your values? Are your motivations for living the life you have in line with your values?

The third step is to cheer others on. It doesn’t come natural at first, but when you see someone else's successes, be the one to applaud for them. Changing your mindset this way can be liberating and allows you to experience contentment and joy in seeing other’s successes.

I’ll leave you with a practical example of this. Several personal friends have been taking incredible vacations around the world. My husband and I were talking about this recently in light of our values. While we would certainly love to travel overseas, with limited vacation time and managing our budget, we realized that this couldn’t be and wasn’t our priority in life. We decided that instead of taking exotic trips overseas, we’ll be making more trips to South Dakota to visit family. Our values guide us to prioritizing our relationship and our future children’s relationship with their grandparents and extended family.

Yes, we would love to go on elaborate vacations, and we very well might do that someday, but letting our values dictate out choices has fostered contentment. We’re happy with the lives that we have chosen.