The Pitfalls of Comparing Yourself with Others
Sometimes it’s difficult and unwise to compare
When it comes to many thing in life, we tend to compare with others around us to determine our relative position or condition. It’s not a bad idea, but from where I sit, there appear to be many more pitfalls than benefits. Too often we’re comparing apples to oranges, and that can be difficult as well as unwise.
Let’s take a quick peek at a couple of benefits, and then I’d like to discuss the pitfalls.
When we look at vagrants and drifters, it’s easy to see how they can serve as a type of reference point that helps us appreciate our situation, even if what we call home isn’t exactly where we’d like to be. They can help us identify what we’d like to avoid…homelessness. Another benefit of comparing with others is to learn something we can make good use of. Staying with the example of vagrants and drifters, we might learn how to make our money go farther. Certainly those of very limited means have made an art (if not a science) out of making it on far less than most others.
If we’re out to learn from others by making a comparison, I think that’s a good idea, but when we try to assure ourselves that we’re okay based on what we see in the life of others, that’s when we can get ourselves into trouble.
Let’s say we’re trying to assure ourselves that we’re on the right financial track for retirement. We might compare our cash and investments and what we own outright with some national average and find that we’re above the average in nearly all areas. Does that mean our financial situation is acceptable with respect to preparedness for retirement? Perhaps, but more likely we’ll need to understand what the average is and decide if that’s acceptable for what we’d like to have as our retirement lifestyle. If the average American has little savings, is relying on Social Security, has considerable debt, and doesn’t own their own home (which probably isn’t far from the truth on all accounts), then we need to be giant leaps above the average before we might feel comfortable with how well we’re prepared for retirement.
The problem that the foregoing example underscores is the “at least I’m not one of those” type of thinking. People in tough shape might not be the best point of comparison. Clearly, we’d be better off to aim higher. Better yet, we ought to focus on our own situation and set our own goals instead of relying on a comparison with others as our standard measurement.
As a way of summarizing the pitfalls of making comparisons with others, let me offer the following points:
- Everyone is wired differently
- One size does not fit all
- People have different motivations and objectives
- We all see the world differently and have different insights
- It’s too easy to blame others if we simply follow in their footsteps
- We rarely know what’s going on behind the scenes with others, so something that appears well might not be at all desirable
It’s this last point that I’d like to touch on as an example of why comparing with others is usually a bad thing to do unless it’s to learn things. I’ve known so many people who have a good financial show on the outside, but are hanging on by the skin of their teeth. Whether it’s new clothes, a new vehicle, or spending evenings out for dinner and enjoying great weekend getaways, many of these people are living check-to-check, putting it on the credit card, living for today but not preparing for tomorrow, or any number of other lifestyles that I would say aren’t responsible. It wouldn’t be in my best interest to imitate their behavior unless I understood a broader picture of how the lifestyle is supported and sustained. It’s likely that it’s well supported, yet completely unsustainable.
I liken this to “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence,” but the truth is, only you can determine what color your grass should be. My advice is to not let a comparison with others mislead you into thinking that the grass is greener over there. Instead, go across the street and look back at your own grass…it might look even better than you imagine once you’re on the other side of the fence.
Clair Schwan is getting back to his seven regularly scheduled contributions each month here at Self Reliance Works. It’s about time!