As human beings, we all tend to compare ourselves to others. It’s a natural part of life; whether you want to do so or not, as you learn about how other people live their lives, you make comparisons to how you are living, and even judgments on how those other people live. It’s hard to stop; as long as you want to know how other people are living, the comparisons will occur.
Especially when it comes to money, and the financial success (or lack thereof) had by other people, the comparisons and even judgments tend to flow readily. With money, you can break the current standing of yourself and any others down into a precise figure, exact to the last cent, and compare where you stand. It doesn’t hurt (or help, if you consider this a bad thing) that you can easy find lists of the top billionaires currently living, if you want to see how far you have to go before you are the richest human on the planet. (Heck, if this planet isn’t enough, you can check out the richest fictional characters, and see where you stand next to likes of Richie Rich, Jed Clampett, and Tony Stark.)
But the question is, should you be comparing yourself to others (fictional or not) in this fashion? It’s pretty easy to go from harmless curiosity to negative thoughts and feelings toward others; that’s one reason that two of the Seven Deadly Sins, namely pride and envy, are directly tied to how we compare ourselves to our neighbors. If we have more than those around us, it’s easy to be prideful, looking down on others as less competent than we are; while if they have more than us, envy can arise quickly, thinking about they don’t deserve what they have and how we can take it from them. Even if we don’t act on these emotions in a way that hurts others, they still can leave you feeling pretty downbeat.
The Good Side of Sizing Others Up
You might think that with all talk of comparisons, negatives feelings, and hey, even Deadly Sins, I’d be pretty solidly against any sort of sizing other people up. That’s not actually the case; I believe that by looking at what other people have accomplished, and more importantly, how they managed to do so, you can apply the same sorts of skills to your own endeavors. Similarly, by looking at how other people have failed in your field, you can get an idea of what you need to do to avoid similar pitfalls yourself. If you look at the whole of how those who have succeeded got to that point, rather than focusing just on how much they have and how much you want to have that much, it can be a major help in your life and attempts to achieve the same heights.
Barbara Friedberg raised the question of whether the success of others motivates or depresses you, in a blog title that got me thinking more than a little bit. For the most part, I’d say that such success motivates me. It’s hard to go through, say, the Inc. 5000 list, the list of the 5000 fastest growing businesses in the United States, to read through some of the stories of the people who have managed to build up these businesses (and continue to build them), and not feel at least some sense that you can, if you put in the time and effort, manage to build your own business that generates millions of dollars of income.
That’s just one source of success stories, of course; there are plenty of others, covering nearly all types of lifestyles. From starting businesses to working as part of a research team that makes a small discovery that might, at some point in the future, help to get closer to creating a treatment for one type of cancer*, there’s lots of ways to be a success in this world, and most of them are encouraging in how they show the ability of nearly anyone to make a positive difference in this world of ours. (*As an aside: If you weren’t familiar, this is how research tends to work; rather than a grand ‘Cure for Cancer!’ ever being announced, it’ll be a slow, gradual process, adding one treatment after another that does a little bit more to treat or prevent cancer. We, as a species, might eliminate cancer one day, but its death will be one by a thousand cuts, not a single sweeping blow. Personally, I’d love the opportunity to help deliver a cut or two.)
All of this is not to say that every success story motivates me; as I’m sure you are aware, not everyone who is a success in this world got to that point by virtue of their own hard work, determination, creativity, and perseverance. There are more than a few people out there who are living the good life due to reasons that can be summed up as a ‘lucky birth’, being born with the good looks or nice voice that can, particularly in a world so focused on entertainment, lead to making more than most of the business owners listed on the Inc. 5000 (and all of the scientists working to cure cancer, combined) without having to make much effort to do something truly useful in the world. (And let’s not get started on those people who are ‘famous for being famous’, whose best skill is simply being born into a rich family that doesn’t do a good enough job of keeping their offspring out of the public eye.)
But those are the exceptions that prove the rule, I think: for every success that is simply the result of well-off parents or lucky genes, there are at least ten successes that show how people, even those who might otherwise have simply given up in life, are able to pick themselves up and build a great life for themselves. It’s amazing to see just how successful some such people can be, and it’s greatly encouraging, particularly as I find myself in a less than successful position at the moment and seek to improve my life. Yup, the success of others, by and large, is a great motivation in my life; so keep up the good work, everyone!