All day, every day, we compare ourselves to other people – whether we know of it or not.
Some believe that comparing yourself to other people is a bad idea – and it definitely can be for some. Others disagree. I’m one of those people.
I want to compare myself to the greatest men in history. I wonder: Can I do what they did? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Who knows? But I do know this: I will increase my odds of success by comparing myself to successful people and by setting my aims higher than I otherwise would.
What do you think? Do you think comparing yourself to people far above your level could increase your motivation and productivity?
If you’re an introvert, this just might be the case. At least according to Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, authors of the book Top Dog: The Science of Winning And Losing. They say that introverts thrive by competing with others.
In other words, the popular idea that you need to avoid all comparison, competition, and stress to heighten your performance may very well be false. It is for me anyway. I like to do a certain amount of comparison and competition with others – and I believe a fair amount of self-imposed stress is healthy.
Having said that, let me tell you about three powerful psychological ways in which you inaccurately compare yourself to other people.
#1 Dunbar’s Number
Most people think – or rather, unconsciously assume – that they are prone to comparing themselves to anyone. Not so according to Dunbar’s Number.
Dunbar’s Number is a cognitive theory based on studies made on primates which suggests that humans have a limit of around 100-230 (150) people with whom we are familiar with and can maintain stable relationships with.
And if you take that one step further by asking yourself who you compare yourself with, you’ll realize that it’s often the people you spend the most time with and are the most familiar with.
The important thing to understand here is that this cognitive limit of around 150 isn’t just relevant for living human beings. This has some very powerful implications.
These so-called 150 cognitive slots can be occupied by anything from powerful historical figures, company brands, to celebrities. These will be the things you are familiar with.
This – if anything – should give you some pretty strong incentives for not reading about people like Justin Bieber or Kim Kardashian. Because it’s obviously not in your best interest to think about these people or compare yourself with them.
#2 The Anchoring Bias
Have you ever been to a party and met some new impressive person and then spent the next day thinking about and possibly comparing yourself with this person? That’s anchoring at work.
Anchoring is a cognitive bias. The social implication of anchoring is that you’re more likely to compare yourself to the people you’re around most recently.
This means you’re a lot less rational in your comparison to other people than you may think. You just may be comparing yourself to a person because that you saw, or were reminded of, that person and started thinking of him or her.
One of the best ways to counter this is by asking yourself: “How this relevant to what I am trying to do?”
Comparing yourself or your life to some fancy person you met at a party is usually not helpful – unless you have a similar skillset and similar ambitions.
#3 Expand from Local to Global Thinking
Most people are jealous of their boss, their neighbor, or their friends, but not of the really successful people. Have you ever thought about this?
Economist Tyler Cowen says it well in his book Average is Over:
“Most envy is local. At least in the United States, most economic resentment is not directed toward billionaires or high-roller financiers—not even corrupt ones. It’s directed at the guy down the hall who got a bigger raise. It’s directed at the husband of your wife’s sister, because he earns 20 percent more than you do. It’s directed at the people you went to high school with. And that’s why a lot of people aren’t so bothered by income or wealth inequality at the macro level: Most of us don’t compare ourselves to billionaires”
You could look this psychological phenomenon as a mix of Dunbar’s number and the anchoring bias.
Point being: You’re more prone to compare yourself to people on a local level, not a global level.
The main reason for this is because it has to do with exposure and repetition. You don’t meet and hang around many billionaires. But you do hang around many “normal” people. So you’ll be more likely to unconsciously compare yourself with those people.
Unless, of course, you deliberately start practicing comparing yourself to people outside of your social circle. . .
. . .For example by reading biographies about successful people or frequently start asking yourself questions of the like: “What would Caesar/Tesla/[insert your idol] do here?”
I think this is a great idea. Try it out for a month and let me know how it goes.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ludvig Sunström is a writer who gives no-nonsense advice to ambitious and intelligent people.