Hi all, I’m Financial Mechanic, and I write about tools that can help everyone in their pursuit of financial independence. I found Fiery Millennials when I first learned about FI as a concept and have enjoyed following Gwen’s escapades. I am continually impressed by her aplomb, and thank her for sharing my writing with you! This article delves into how to stop comparing ourselves to others. Honestly, I wish I compared myself to others less. Like Gwen– she never compares herself at all.
In my linear algebra class, the teacher assistant plopped my exam on my desk. At the top was my grade: a measly 55, encircled by red pen. I had studied every night for the last three weeks, memorized all of the equations, practiced until when I tried to sleep I saw variables dancing across the backs of my eyelids. Yet there it was — an F, a fail, a miserable fiasco of a grade.
The professor let the class sit in heavy silence. I wondered if this meant I should change my major, give up on engineering, and run away to start a folk music band. Finally, she told us, “This exam was graded on a curve.”
She flicked to the next slide, revealing the range of scores that corresponded with each letter grade. Shoulders shifted as students in the room breathed a collective sigh of relief. The class average was a 45. My 55 was actually an A. Following that day, we would chatter in the hallways after every exam. We would try to gauge how everyone else did because that determined our true grade.
In order to survive, humans need to compare their own ability against the abilities of others. We don’t learn in isolation—we need a frame of reference to figure out how we are doing. Comparing for self-evaluation is natural and helpful, however, it can turn against us in unhealthy ways, prompting us to be resentful and envious.
Comparison Becomes a Problem
We all know the insidiousness of comparison when we obsess over other peoples’ lives. We flick through Instagram shots at the top of Macchu Picchu while spooning cereal into our mouths before making our early trudge into work. We scroll through engagement photo shoots on our way home for the holidays, preparing to weather mom’s chagrin about your perpetual singledom. Did you hear about her friend’s daughter who is married, has three darling kids, and works as a successful lawyer in NYC?
Unfortunately, there are an infinite amount of categories we can obsess over when we compare ourselves to others. There will always be someone smarter, more fit, more social, more influential than us.
The Grass is Greener on Your Neighbor’s Lawn
When it comes to money, we look to our neighbors for our own measure of self-worth. A study published by The National Bureau of Economic Research found that the more our neighbors earn, the worse off our self-reported happiness.
In the Simpsons, Homer can’t stand Flanders, a character that is always ready to greet Homer with a smile. He is the neighbor with ‘it all,’ happy kids, a better job, and a bigger house. In one episode, Flanders quits his job in order to open up a store to sell left-handed appliances.
Homer Simpson, laughing: I’m telling you, Flanders’ store was deserted. So what do you think of your bestest buddy now, Marge?
Lisa Simpson: Dad, do you know what schadenfreude is?
Homer Simpson: No, I do not know what schadenfreude is. Please tell me because I’m dying to know.
Lisa Simpson: It’s a German term for shameful joy, taking pleasure in the suffering of others.
Homer Simpson: Oh, come on, Lisa. I’m just glad to see him fall flat on his butt. He’s usually all happy and comfortable and surrounded by loved ones. And it makes me feel — what’s the opposite of that shameful joy thing of yours?
Lisa Simpson: Sour grapes.
Homer Simpson: Boy, those Germans have a word for everything.
We universally experience schadenfreude. It’s what fuels the tabloids showcasing the fall of celebrities– the buzz around the scandals of golfer Tiger Woods and famous public figure Martha Stewart. It is the same satisfaction when the popular bully gets their comeuppance in the teen flick, or when that pompous know-it-all doesn’t make honor roll. Yet, why do we waste our time rejoicing in failures of others rather than focusing on our own lives?
Gwen here. I also recommend checking out a song called Schadenfreude from the Broadway musical Avenue Q. It explains the concept perfectly. I also highly recommend the musical in general. So good! NSFW, btw.
They Don’t Deserve Their Success (Even If They Do)
We begrudge the success of others, especially if we struggle to feel successful. Mark Alicke, author of the paper Social Comparison and Envy writes, “The person’s advantage can be real or perceived, trivial or inconsequential, due to luck, effort, or natural ability. What matters ultimately is that person A believes that person B’s advantage is in some way unjust.” Say we begin a business at the same time as our childhood friend. They have had a similar upbringing, their idea is similar, and we went to the same business school. For whatever reason, their business soars while ours flounders. We are more likely to feel intense envy than comparing ourselves to Nike founder Phil Knight because they are more on our level.
Instead of striving to improve ourselves to their level, we would much rather that they step down from a perceived pedestal onto our level. If they fail, whether or not we play a part in their downfall, we feel like the world is righted.
Rather than malicious competition, social comparison can drive motivation and collaboration.
It’s often helpful to work out with a buddy. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I would throw my rock climbing harness and shoes in my trunk and head over to the local gym after work. On days when I waffled, my coworkers encouraged me to go with them. We depended on each other for moral and physical support, we needed someone to belay us after all!
Your Choices Affect Your Outcome
Then I had a work trip that took me abroad for 6 months, so I stopped climbing. When I came home, the work environment had changed and a lot of my friends had left the company. The gym was also pretty expensive, so I thought I should go to the bouldering gym closer to home, but I didn’t do that either. I recently met up with one of those original coworkers, and he still goes twice a week. He was talking about the routes he’s climbed, how he’s started to go outdoor rock-climbing, and how he met some of the most famous climbers in the world.
I started feeling jealous, but hello! I made the choice to go home after work. I made the choice to do something else with my evenings while he invested in a top roping course. My jealousy was really just disappointment in myself, so I let him know I was proud of his progress and used the moment for motivation. If I want to go rock climbing more, I need to make it a true priority and deliberately carve out time for it. The interaction with my friend only made me more motivated to get back to the wall.
Look Behind The Curtain
If all the world is a stage– as William Shakespeare wrote– and we are just actors, consider each life you see a performance. While you watch someone else’s life play out, you don’t see the hours they spent making the set and learning their lines. The person whose business is booming put in the hours and effort to get there. The person who looks put together spent an extra hour getting ready in the morning. The person free soloing El Capitan has climbed the route countless times.
People say comparison (especially on social media) is like watching someone else’s highlight reel while you live out your bloopers. The real trick is to learn to laugh at your own blooper scenes. Remember that there is more behind the curtain to every person’s life.
Pursuing financial independence has taught me one thing above all else—you have to be grateful for what you have. You can strive forever on the hedonist treadmill always wanting more, but contentment comes with gratitude. If we don’t desire a bigger house or a better job, our cheery Flander-neighbors wouldn’t bother us.
“Modern envy is aroused as much, if not more, by the things that others have rather than by the attributes they possess.” [emphasis mine] — Mark Alicke
We can learn to be grateful for what we have—but perhaps even more difficult is to accept ourselves where we are. Looking at others’ achievements and beating ourselves up just leads to low self-esteem. Ultimately, social comparison is a deeply-rooted way we determine our own value, and the more we value ourselves the less we compare. Even in a world where there is always someone out-performing us, remember to acknowledge what you have done and where you have come from– I bet you have come a long way.
Comparison is helpful; envy is unproductive. Learning to focus on gardening our own lawns, working behind-the-scenes, and accepting ourselves is the sure path to progress. There will always be someone who makes more, accomplishes more, hustles more, or starts a really successful folk band while you’re feeling like a failure. Ditch envy for its helpful counterparts: motivation, collaboration, and gratefulness. Stop looking around and instead look ahead; you have great things ahead of you.
For more articles like this, check out my blog! Thanks again to Gwen for having me as a guest writer, I will be around to chat in the comments so please leave your thoughts below!