In the modern world, it’s nearly impossible to avoid comparing yourself to others. It’s so engrained in our minds and society that a vast majority of people can’t even help it.
You may see someone in a completely different situation than yourself, they could be better or worse off, but the natural instinct is to compare your situation to theirs.
Why is this?
You’ve likely been told countless times in your life that comparing yourself to others is harmful behavior that does no good.
You may have even heard the phrase, “comparison is the thief of joy”, which was meant to convey that comparison will lead to unhappiness.
So where does this seemingly natural inclination of comparison even come from then?
As with many other things, we likely have our ancient ancestors from prehistoric times to thank for that.
Comparison in Prehistoric Times
Looking at this from an evolutionary perspective, the ability to make comparisons with those around you was likely an evolutionary advantage.
Think about it.
Back in the hunter gatherer days, social comparison was essential for survival. Our ancestors needed to know exactly where they stood within their social group (tribe, camp, pack, etc).
Were you stronger/weaker than others in the group?
Are you considered more/less attractive by the opposite gender?
How do your talents/abilities stack up comparatively (What value do you bring?)
Do you hold influence comparatively to others?
As Darwin attests to, those with favorable traits will survive, reproduce and pass those traits on to the next generation.
The ones that were successfully able to compare themselves to the group and adapt, were likely to survive longer than others and pass on these traits.
Social comparison was likely one of these.
However, like other traits we inherited from the past that may no longer be beneficial (looking at you wisdom teeth), in modern times social comparison may be causing more harm than good.
Comparison in Modern Times
While comparison rightfully gets a bad rap, when used the right way it actually can lead to some good.
Natural comparison helps us to orient ourselves in the world, add context to various life scenarios, and communicate with others better.
This all turns destructive when we begin comparing ourselves to others and using their lives as a benchmark to think what our lives should be like.
At some point in your life this has surely been the case for you.
It’s engrained when we are young and in school. The grading system is designed to foster comparison, as it’s especially easy to tell who is performing better based on those.
The grades later on turn into job titles, where you work, how much you make, etc.
Perhaps you have more of a consumer mindset and see all the nice, new things some people have that you don’t. Sleek new car, huge house, expensive clothes, etc.
Or you browse through your friends posts/pictures on social media and see them all living their best, happiest lives on vacations, with the things they have, relationships they are in, etc.
In any of the above examples, have you ever made that comparison and wondered why your own life couldn’t be like someone else’s?
Maybe you thought you were a failure because someone else has reached some “status” while you haven’t? (This line of thought couldn’t be more wrong!)
If you have, this is the dark side of comparison.
These situations, in which you base your success in life on what others have done is the exact harmful behavior that everyone speaks about when saying you should not compare yourself to others.
There is a way to use comparison for good though. It all starts with who you are comparing yourself to.
Who You Really Should Be Comparing Yourself To
Negatively comparing yourself to others is something that is extremely difficult to stop doing. It is a natural tendency and a habit that is very hard to break.
Instead of comparing ourselves to others, the person we really need to be comparing ourselves against is (wait for it…) ourselves.
Everybody has a unique situation in life. Others people’s wants and desires may or may not completely relate to what you want or your goals.
That one person could be making more money than you, but perhaps they are simply in a career field that pays more money also requires working a lot more hours.
Or maybe that person with the fancy car and posting all the vacation pics on social media is massively in debt.
My point is, everyone’s life is different and comparing yourself to their life and using it as some sort of benchmark makes absolutely no sense when your goals, values, and desires in life may be completely different.
The best use of comparison is to use it against yourself.
Know what you value and what goals you have. If you see other people doing things that don’t align to these, why bother getting envious or jealous.
My favorite comparison I use for myself is asking the question: “How far have I come?”
Asking myself this question is just the start as it leads to so many more. For example:
- How much have I developed as a person?
- What are recent accomplishments I’ve had?
- How have I changed? Has it been for better or worse?
- What areas do I need to work on?
- Where do I want to go from here?
This one question can lead to a huge moment of self-reflection in which you are comparing against your past self.
It’s very important to celebrate the wins – congratulations – you deserve it!
For the answers you may not be as happy with, here’s where you can formulate a plan and take actions to work towards accomplishing them.
By comparing only against yourself, you are effectively making the comparison an exercise of self-growth and reflection, instead of something that could lead to envy and jealousy of others.
Comparison along the FI Journey
Along the journey to FI surely you will run into the action of comparing yourself to others along the journey as well.
Hardly a day goes by when I don’t see a blog or another person’s story in which they paid off and insane amount of debt in a short period, or have an incredibly high savings rate, or just retired in their 30’s.
I can see how that might be discouraging to many people, if they aren’t able to achieve some of these lofty milestones that others have set.
As mentioned in the section above, directly comparing your situation to others is of no use, as no two situations are the exact same.
Some people may live in LCOL area, others may have families, or a very high paying job, etc. the differences in situations are endless.
The best use of comparison is to yourself.
One of the best things I have done is to create a spreadsheet detailing out my projections to FI. In addition to this one, I have a separate spreadsheet (soo many spreadsheets!) that details out where I would be now had I not taken the steps back in July 2017 to get where I’m at now.
Almost a year into the comparison and the lines of where I’m at, and where I would’ve been have already noticeably diverged.
In addition, directly comparing how much higher my savings rates are than in the past have been extremely satisfying!
Comparing directly my current self and my pre-journey to FI is all the comparison I need, as it shows I am on the right path.
I’d encourage anyone along this journey to consider how much you have improved against your past self the next time you sense yourself getting discouraged by not being able to accomplish what someone else has.
After all, this journey to FI is your own, so it wouldn’t make sense to compare that to other journeys, right?!?
How do you avoid comparing yourself to others? Do you find comparing against yourself combats the negative feelings of comparing with others? Would love to hear your thoughts on this!