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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Compared to What?

The desire to improve is a nagging double-edged sword. It’s good to be always striving and growing, yet at the same time there’s an accompanying human tendency to keep wanting more and never feeling fulfilled. Whatever we have, we want just a little more, often represented by what someone else has. We’re constantly on the lookout for what we’re missing and where our surroundings are surpassing us. Oh, this human is in a curious predicament, for he should be content with what he has but not with what he is. And many times distinguishing the two is like a blind cola taste test where we keep going back and forth before we finally just guess. Such can be our dilemma.

What if somebody has more than you or is currently happier than you? What does that matter? How does that affect you? As long as you have the same fundamental opportunities and freedoms as them, if they happen to be in a situation where they’re enjoying things more, how does that negatively impact you? Why should happiness be on a scale, where if we see something higher than ourselves, then our situation is somehow not good enough? Isn’t that idealistic? Do we always have to have the best? What about second or third best? Are those failures?

When you think about it, what does it matter how happy someone else is? Do other people have to be less happy than you in order for you to be happy? How does their happiness make you any less happy? The only thing along those lines that should make us unhappy is if we don’t reach our own potential, not whether we measure up to what someone else is.

Life can’t be zero-sum. When one person rises, it doesn’t lower someone else. Win-loss is the best model we could come up with through simulation. Win-win, however, is reality.

We earthlings seem to be competitive by nature. We try to defeat someone else in a game. We try to do better than whatever it was that they did. And what does it prove? Certainly, accomplishment is worthy in of itself, as long as we don’t take away from it that it makes us superior.

If our team is better than their team, then what’s the conclusion? Maybe we were both bad. Maybe we were both good. Maybe we won but we were the recipient of a considerable amount of luck. That’s not to detract from the team effort working toward a victory, but it underscores that winning doesn’t elevate you above someone else.

Think of the implications of the whole idea of status symbol. It proclaims that my status can beat up your status. An unnamed SNL alum used to mock the media elite in his newscasts with “I’m Chevy Chase, and you’re not.” There is often wisdom in the underlying messages of comedy, which can reveal elements of life in surprising ways. Here, the astute Chase displayed how people can get caught up in themselves, and even have the gall to take credit for it!

What’s missing is the minor detail of context. Since most anything in our experience is relative, using the average as a standard doesn’t really tell you any more than how many people you’re better than. Maybe the 95th percentile for you is falling short. (By the way, there is no percentile that we have any direct access to)

How much does height matter, really? It’s all relative. I heard it said that if it weren’t for short people, tall people wouldn’t know they were tall anyway. Which is true, in a strange sort of way. What if the human species were the size of Barbies, and some of us were 11 inches tall while some of us were 14 inches tall? 14 inches doesn’t seem all that tall to us, but it would then, even though it wouldn’t be. And compared to a giraffe, a 6-foot person is in the same class as a 5-foot person. You’ll notice that people who are 6 feet tall like to mention their height, and people who are “just” 5-11 don’t bring up the subject much. All over one lousy inch!

If your neighbor makes $30,000 more than you, does that make your earnings insufficient? There’s something to be said about being a big fish in a little pond. If you lived in the slums and were the only household in the neighborhood, would you feel richer? The fact that people are so conscientious about how much money they make is a little disconcerting. I make $45,000 a year, which is probably quite a bit less than people my age (47), another area that we don’t like to mention. Are older people less worthy than younger people? Does advancing age make us inferior? The rhetorical nature of many of these questions suggests that they should be no-brainers (wink-wink, nudge-nudge). You’re better off when you realize that social stigmas aren’t worth the computer screens they’re printed on.

The size of the pond you’re in doesn’t define you as much as it defines the pond. A change in environment may make you look good, but appearances depend upon contextual factors to support them. Measuring ourselves by other people is a somewhat lazy way to be analyzing our progress, not to mention unreliable.

There seems to be a psychological urge to want to do better than others so that we have a supposed advantage. Over what though? We seem to believe that if misfortune befalls someone else, then there’s less of it to go around and affect me. The law of averages is therefore on our side, so we think.

Overall, we aren’t made more impressive by trying to make others look bad, though it may be perceived that way in the short-term or by the unsuspecting. We’re actually made better by lifting others up with us. I would hazard a guess that a God wouldn’t be grading on a curve. However many people it is that fail, it still doesn’t make you come out better in the wider scope. We should do more than to just play to not lose.

The message learned is that while I should be grateful for what I have, I shouldn’t be grateful simply due to having more than others. What they have or don’t have ought to have no bearing on how grateful I am.

If the U.S. is 17th in the world in academic success, how bad or good is that? How good is the rest of the world? What do we have to compare it to? Neptune? Or our subjective expectations? You can’t really judge success simply by weighing two apples. Quantitative measurements need a frame of reference, and what authoritative gravity exists in the moral spectrum? While you can get a sense of how you stack up in relation to something else, it doesn’t speak to quality. It’s an indicator and little else. Taking a lot of stock in it is flattering ourselves.

We want to keep up with those elusive Joneses, except that they don’t exist. We create an ideal and then can’t be satisfied with what’s real. There’s no one we need to keep up with. The illusion of a race is the biggest sales pitch of all.

Thoreau adroitly remarked, “Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.” Ouch, on several counts. He’s got us pegged from 150 years ago. We were doing that way back then too? That makes us a little predictable. Which then suggests that we’re more creatures of habit than we realize.

Thoreau’s insight conveys various importances: We’re swayed by trends, and our perspective changes as phenomena move along the timeline. We can have an irrational bias for what’s immediate to our experience. We can easily envy whatever’s paraded in front of us. And our vanities can have too much say.

We think to improve ourselves outwardly when it’s the inner man that deserves the main focus. Looks are nice, but how could they ever define who we are? Our outward appearance can only accentuate what’s under the hood, not substitute for it.

The problem with appearances is that they can be deceiving, plus we typically don’t have the wherewithal to verify them. So making cross-judgments between ourselves and others based on what is apparent is a futile game of false readings. Besides, what’s the point in trying to see who’s got the better character anyway? Do you think J.D. Power & Associates is keeping track? Just work on yourself, help those around you, and save the world in another life.

We know within ourselves how hard we’re trying. Sometimes people don’t think we’re trying enough when we really are. You could play to the audience and spend your life attempting to appease them and put on a good show, but there are too many song requests to ever uphold that one. Within your inner circle, those people you love most will tend to be the most understanding, and you won’t have to worry about satisfying the critics.

It can be good to partially compare yourself to someone you aspire to become more like. But it should work to motivate us instead of get us discouraged. And while we can learn from others’ mistakes, we shouldn’t take those as opportunities to build our own self up by comparison.

I can still judge bad behavior. It’s just that I don’t need to place emphasis on personifying it so much. And my conclusion should be that I don’t want to repeat what bad behavior I see, instead of taking away from it that so-and-so is a good-for-nothing ne’er-do-well.

If you have to compare yourself to somebody, compare to what you were yesterday. If yesterday is better, then work on that. If today is better, then build on that. Don’t worry about becoming ten degrees better each day, just incrementally better than what you just were, and keep going. So simple to say and yet not so simple to master. I think a lot of it comes down to the attitude we take toward it, and that’s certainly under our control. If we’re of the frame of mind that we can do a little at a time and hang in there, not give up, persevere, and you know the rest, then we’re already on our way.

Does this mean we shouldn’t compare people with other people? What a great future topic... And preliminarily, I’m inclined to say that we each are compelled to live with our own selves, having no other option there, but we do have options in who else we associate with and on what level, so the logistics seem to dictate the conditions for us.

Ultimately, it should be very comforting to know that we don’t need to compare ourselves to others. That should take a lot of the pressure off and let us just be our best selves. Even if the grass is greener on the other side… so what? Use it as motivation to make your yard better if it needs to be improved. But don’t dwell on what you might be missing across the fence.

The whole moral of the story seems to be “chill out,” “go with the flow,” “take it easy,” “don’t worry, be happy,” “be in your own shell,” and “enjoy the ride”… There’s no need to covet, for if you were that other person, you might very well be coveting you.


Byte said...

I learned something tonight at the play 'Legally Blonde' - what does not kill us makes us hotter.

This is a great post. I laughed, I cried, I did a spit-take just because I could.

I'd love to break down this game film and discuss each part but better to just toss some kudos and go away. Thanks again Rusty.


Anonymous said...

Amazing commentary, Rusty. I can see that you are secure within yourself, in competition with no one.
I have so many responses to your words, but here are just a few.
Somethiing I heard once and love to quote, "We buy things we don't want, with money we don't have, to keep up with people we don't like."
Also, my youngest 3 sons, when calling for a place in line, or in a game, would holler, "SECOND!" instead of "First." They found that this got them in the front of the line all the time, because everyone else was calling for first.
Thank you for words that hit me right in the heart.

Hannelore (myfrontpage) said...

Rusty, your post provides much food for thought. Although, the first part does not really distinguish between people who want to improve for the sake of improvement and between people who improve for the sake of competition, and the ones that always want more because they have a fill a void inside themselves.
I think that actually most people improve because it this based on their curiosity and creativeness. Otherwise there would not be progress and further development of any kind. People need to move boundaries, discover, and go further, because it is in our genes. If a bunch of people had not strived to get better, I would not be posting this comment with my computer, for example.

On the other hand, a group of people aim to improve just for the sake of competition. Competition is also based on genes. Competition is necessary because it drives us to move boundaries (for example at sports). Unfortunately there are those people that are driven by competition only, who instead of developing further restrict themselves to compare themselves to other people and get locked into the never ending trap of competition. There is no end to it as there are just too much people around to compete with. I don’t think this type of people would stop this behavior by being told to take it easy. The strong urge to compete is a symptom of an emotional emptiness which keeps them from feeling good about themselves. Their strong competitiveness is just a way of filling this emptiness by making the mistake of focusing on other people’s achievements instead of on their own shortcomings.

Some other people are never satisfied by anything they achieve or buy and therefore need more and more. They have this huge expectation that buying just this one more thing will make them happy only to realize that after they obtained it they are not happy at all because now there is something else they want. Nothing will fill their void inside, but part of filling this void is obtaining the thing, not owning it. But since obtaining it is such a short lived satisfaction, they will continue to accumulate all sorts of stuff and wondering (or not) why it does not make them happy.

leo said...

Thank's for the invitation to ruminate on your ruminations, Rusty. I think it's interesting that this was the post that you targeted, because your musings in this particular one are ideas that I've thought about a lot over the years. What I find most intriguing is the fact that you can take two related individuals who've grown up in the same environment and place one in a palace and the other in a prison, with upside down results - the prisoner will mentally convert his cell into a palace while the other will make a prison out of his/her luxury. So it's not about what we have, but rather about what we are internally. BTW, I've always thought that you could be a professional writer, not just because of your polished form but, more importantly, because of your substance. But what's most important, of course, is that you enjoy the endeavor. I look forward to your future posts. - Leo

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