Comparing Ourselves to Others

Published on:
September 14, 2020
Written by:
Sebastian Hallqvist

Adeo Ressi is a wild success. In 2009, he started Founder’s Institute, a startup incubator now operating in 165 countries (I recently used one of their tools, and I live in Sweden). Before that, he started a handful of other companies, all of which he successfully sold. Estimating from Wikipedia, he is worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

For a period of time, Ressi worked with popular psychologist Jordan Peterson. At one point during that time, Ressi opened up to Peterson about how little he felt he had achieved in his life.

“How could you possibly be unhappy about that!?” Peterson asked.

Ressi replied that he had this roommate in college, and ever since they graduated and went out into the world, he was constantly comparing himself to his roommate’s achievements.

Ressi’s roommate in college was Elon Musk.

A similar story can be found in Dave Mustaine who started the band Megadeth, one of the most successful heavy metal groups in history.

Before Megadeth, Mustaine co-founded another band. After some time, it became clear that he didn't always get along with the other members. As this fledgling group was just about to record their debut album, Mustaine was awakened one morning and told he was being kicked out of the band. He was promptly handed a bus ticket home.

Fueled by his anger and the deceit of his former bandmates, he started Megadeth and went on to incredible success. Despite that success, Mustaine spent the following 30 years feeling inadequate and sad about being kicked out of the first band.

The first band was Metallica.

Strangely, we can all empathize with Ressi and Mustaine. It’s easy to imagine how much it would suck to be in their situation (which is ironic considering how insanely successful they are compared to most people).

But many of us fail to realize that we are all in their situation.

We are constantly comparing ourselves to others, and until we understand the mechanisms behind why we do this, it will cause us a lot of unnecessary pain.

Comparing apples to oranges

According to anthropologist Robin Dunbar at Oxford University, a side-effect of living in increasingly large social groups is that they produce hierarchies. Through evolution, we have been wired to relate to those hierarchies — comparing ourselves to others was a useful tool to monitor our place in the hierarchy and consequently our chances of survival and reproduction.

So our tendency to look to other people’s success and blow it out of proportion, while being intensely sober about our own achievements (read self-deprecating), is just a clever way to optimize for passing on our genes.

But in the high-tech age we live in, our brains are not keeping up. Through the internet and social media, our “social group” is now approaching 5 billion individuals — but we are still equipped with the same tools for measuring ourselves against others.

We are meant to measure against individuals who started with, and lived through, the exact same circumstances as us (those who were part of the same tribe, lived in the same geographical area, and spent their time on the same activities etc.).

For most of us, there is essentially no other person who fits those criteria anymore.

We don’t have the ability to account for the myriad ways in which the person on the other side of the screen, or the other side of the street, is fundamentally different from us. And that’s what get’s us into trouble.

Usain Bolt is the fastest man in recorded history, but compared to a cheetah, he isn’t fast at all.

Because of this inability, the only thing we are left with is that primitive warning signal — that sinking feeling in our stomach that tells us we are falling behind.

A game of luck

Humans are notoriously bad at thinking in terms of probability. We rarely take into account the role luck plays in success. We tend to believe in a linear relationship between intelligence and talent, hard work, time, and success.

But in reality, that is hardly how the world works. This is difficult for us to accept because we want to feel a sense of agency in our lives. We want our destiny to be in our hands.

True, the majority of people who end up with any amount of success probably have some combination of intelligence, talent, and a good work ethic. But that doesn’t mean everyone who is intelligent and hard-working will become successful. Far from it, in fact.

One proof of this is Pareto-distribution and the way that success fuels more success. In any productive system, a minority of the inputs will produce a majority of the outputs. So in a world where everyone has such different circumstances, there will be a minority who happens to end up with most of the outputs, i.e. impact, money, fame, etc.

If person A has $100m and invests with 10% annual interest, she will make $10m in a year. The following year she will have $110m and make another $11m.

If person B has $100k he will make $10k the first year, and the following year he will have $110k and make another $11k.

After two years, person A will have made almost $21m more than person B, just by being person A.

This dynamic is present, to an extent, in all domains of success.

Comparing the different domains of success

The above example is about wealth, which is just one of many domains in which we measure ourselves against others. There are several others, one of which is fame and recognition. We tend to equate fame with importance and impact. But most of the time, it’s not that easy.

Elon Musk is one of the most talented entrepreneurs, inventors, and engineers of our time. But his circumstances have also maxed out the fame and recognition he receives for his accomplishments.

Musk’s first real claim to fame was as a member of the “PayPal mafia.”

Peter Thiel is another member of the PayPal mafia, who also went on to do extraordinary things. I would argue he is on the same level as Elon Musk in many ways. But the nature of Thiel’s circumstances has made it so that his fame is not maximized (big data services for large governments are not as sexy as saving the world with electric cars or flying rocket ships to space). Sure, Thiel is famous in certain contexts, but If I were to ask my mom who he is, she wouldn’t have a clue.

Musk is someone who absolutely deserves all the credit he gets. Thiel is someone who probably doesn’t get all the credit he deserves.

Like Musk, Thiel is a damn rockstar — but his music doesn’t have as many mainstream fans.

And let’s not forget the most obvious thing — by his own admission, Elon’s relationships have suffered on account of everything he is so well known for.

Fame and wealth are two of the most in-your-face domains of success, so we tend to overvalue them. Plenty of famous people die alone, with no one to leave their money to (except charity, which, granted, is probably better).

Bottom line: there are many different domains of success, and we are terrible at taking all of them into account when we compare ourselves to others.

Channeling the pain

Despite our awareness of this tendency, we’re hard-pressed to stop comparing ourselves to others. It’s hardwired into us. But hopefully, this perspective will put a little more weight behind the maxim that we should only compare ourselves to the person we were yesterday. It might be cliché, but it’s the only fair thing to do.

We can also use the pain of feeling inferior or unaccomplished compared to others and view it in a positive light — if we didn’t feel this way, there would be little incentive to accomplish anything. Used carefully, the success of others can motivate us.

We also mustn’t forget that fame in particular is an incredibly inaccurate indicator of more meaningful types of success. Kim Kardashian is probably more famous than Bill Gates. Enough said.

In the end, all we have is our (short) time in the world. And it comes down to what we want to do with that time. If we truly want to spend it on building something, on creating something that positively impacts the world, we don’t have to be on the same level as Elon Musk or Adeo Ressi or anyone else. We only have to be our best selves every day, and build towards the world we want to live in.

“How short-lived the praiser and praised, the one who remembers and the remembered”
— Marcus Aurelius