I’d been having a productive morning — knocking off client calls, writing assignments and errands like a boss. Then I saw that someone had left the October issue of Fortune magazine down in the laundry room. On the cover was Sheryl Sandberg and the tagline: “There’s never been an executive like the Facebook COO. A billionaire bestselling author she’s one of the most powerful women in the world.”
Suddenly, I felt deflated, unaccomplished, insignificant. Why wasn’t I on the list of most powerful women in the world?! (A goal, frankly, I had had no interest in until that moment.)
The comparison game is insidious — there’s absolutely no way to win. No matter who you are, there’s always someone who’s smarter, richer, more powerful (even Sheryl Sandberg, at #5, is trailing four women on the list). And though you may feel better meeting someone worse off than you, the reward is fleeting, unsustainable.
So why do we do it?
As Simon Sinek points out in his latest book, Leaders Eat Last, a lot of it is biological. Back in the time of our caveman ancestors, those who were physically or otherwise dominant — the alphas — got the first choice of meat, first choice of mate. Likewise, in modern times, we’re constantly assessing our relative status to others to determine where we stand in the hierarchy.
Being better in relative terms is so important that, in a study where Harvard students were asked which they would prefer, a job where they made $50,000 a year or one where they made $100,000 a year, the majority chose to make $50,000. Huh?
Well, there was a twist: In the $50,000 scenario, the students would get paid twice as much as others, who would only get $25,000. In the second option, they would get paid half as much as others, who would get $200,000.
Irrational as it seems, students preferred to do better than others, even if it meant getting less for themselves in absolute terms.
Evaluating our relative status wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if it didn’t usually lead to judging ourselves and a gnawing feeling of falling short, of “not being good enough.” In turn, having a sense of decreasing or lower status then triggers the fight-or-flight response — Are we about to be kicked out of the tribe!? — and our body responds as if it’s in danger by producing cortisol and other hormones that stress the system. When we recognize that the “threat” in question is a magazine headline or a Facebook, uh, status, it all starts to seem a little ridiculous and unnecessary.
Once we understand why we succumb to the comparison game, we can practice catching ourselves and make a conscious decision to stop: “Don’t even go there,” we can say. Sometimes it’s just that simple.