Why comparisons can so easily lead you astray

Competition and comparison have become shibboleths of our society, but there are times when it makes sense not to compare—especially when the basis for comparison is wrong or distorted.

In today’s society, comparison and competition have become so widely accepted as “good’ and “desirable,” that it seems almost a heresy to suggest than many of them are both false and misleading, and can lead to some very bad decisions.

That is, however, exactly the case. For example, you may compare your own career progress to others around you, without taking into account your different strengths and values. Some people progress faster because they’re more willing to suck up to those in power; or they’re more political; or they’re more ready to knife colleagues and competitors along the way.

Unreal comparisons and imaginary targets

Comparisons about career progress or lifestyle can be especially tricky. Merely because someone else has does something does not mean it is suitable for you. You see other people’s achievements only from the outside. In many cases, they’ve been gussied up for public consumption too. What you see may not be what you think you are seeing. If you set that as the standard, you are pitting yourself against an unreal situation.

People often compare themselves to more-or-less imaginary or invented beings (e.g. media stars or people reported in the media). Role models are chosen—or imposed by fashion —who are ideals of perfection that do not, and could not, exist. Such comparisons cause particular trouble, since they set standards for “winning” that are impossible to reach.

How genuine are the stories that you have been told about such people? Do you know? Or are you chasing a set of criteria that have never existed outside the words of an article, the pages of a book, or the script of a TV show?

Comparison is no substitute for proper judgment

Many businesses are managed largely on the basis of comparisons: comparisons with assumed targets, last year’s results, a competitor’s reported sales or profits. All have the potential to be highly misleading. Any comparison, to be a fair one, requires that whatever is compared is truly and sufficiently similar.

Numerical comparisons, in particular, can miss glaring dissimilarities. Comparisons between this year and last year may well gloss over great differences between the circumstances at the time. Comparisons with points further in the past are usually based on recollections that are faulty. Comparisons with future targets are based on assumptions and expectations that are often unprovable, over-optimistic, or just plain wrong.

In many cases, management by comparisons—or, to use the jargon term, benchmarks—is simply a substitute for judgment. It’s much less demanding, mentally or strategically, to rely on some simplistic comparison with past results than to take the trouble to consider all the circumstances and weigh all the options.

Fair competition

Comparisons—and the competition that they produce— can only be healthy and useful when the targets set are:

  • Appropriate to your situation now.
  • Comparisons against criteria that you have chosen freely because they represent your true aspirations.
  • In line with your actual strengths and talents.
  • Based on realistic and truthful information.

For the rest, it is better to dare not to compare—to be yourself, not some pale imitation of an ideal that never existed. To follow your own best interests, not torment yourself with aspirations that were never truly your own.

Competition is not essential to life, whatever conventional thinkers claim. Use it when it helps and leave it alone at other times. Like all false gods, it easily becomes a devil that can ruin your peace of mind.

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