Hello, old friend, remember me? I’m the voice inside your head, here to inform you that it’s time to examine where you are, where you used to be, and where you’re headed. In other words, it’s time to evaluate your performance—your life performance, that is. Now, most importantly, we first must identify the correct comparison, which in this case is, well, you. It’s counterproductive to measure your success against anyone else’s. Trust me, as the voice in your head, I can make life unpleasant if you start comparing yourself to others. Here are four important reasons this is the case:
1. The world is a lot bigger now…and a lot smaller
When you were a kid (in the 90s), you could’ve grown up to be anything you wanted—the best doctor, the most accomplished lawyer, or the go-to-entrepreneur from your hometown. You even had a personal dream of _______. Nowadays, dreaming (and self-evaluating) is way more complicated. The world—meaning your environment, or the collective stimuli and events that impact what you do, say, and think—has somehow become both a lot bigger and yet much smaller.
Notice I said YOUR environment, not THE environment. What you sense as you navigate the world is based on a unique mixture of YOUR physiology and experience, which differs greatly from other people’s experiences. I’m really talking about perspectives and how they’ve changed over time. Especially, the Internet has changed perspectives on, well, everything by opening our eyes to all sorts of people, places, and things living and transpiring all over the world, connecting us to billions of people all at once.
But there’s also been a downside to that—we are connected to billions of people all at once! Making the world suddenly a lot bigger place and your role in it (i.e. your world) somewhat smaller. Back in the 90s, we (sorry, you) could have been the best physician in the world, but now, you can log in to ZocDoc and see thousands of other physicians just like you with a series of 5-star ratings, overly positive comments, and a stack of credentials that make their email signature look like an over-noodled alphabet soup. Your dream of being the best doctor in the world just got crushed. And to be fair, the problem isn’t the Internet—it’s you.
You shouldn’t be comparing yourself to anyone other than, well, yourself. Evaluating where you are in life against someone else in today’s world is a recipe for disaster. If you do something well, I can guarantee you that someone else, somewhere on earth, does it just a little bit better, and they have probably announced it somewhere online and received thunderous applause. And guess what? I’m always going to be here to remind you of all of your deficiencies compared to that someone, and trust me, that won’t go well for you.
Don’t get me wrong. Seeing what’s out there is important. It broadens your perspective and allows you to explore ideas that you may never have considered otherwise. But obsessing over what someone on the other side of the planet is doing (with a completely different individual environment) isn’t helpful and will just make you feel bad. And trust me, I will remind you of that uncomfortable feeling every day.
2. Who are you today? And who were you yesterday?
Remember all those things you wanted to change about yourself? Don’t deny it. I’m right there with you when you wake up every morning and spot something about yourself that you don’t like whether it’s a minor behavior or a whole set of skills, such as how early you got up, what you eat for breakfast, or how fast you start working. Sometimes you even get so excited you just start meddling before you have a plan or, more importantly, data.
That’s the thing about behavior change. You really can’t call it change until you’ve measured it, and you can’t measure anything without data—more specifically, baseline data, which is basically an estimate of your performance before you change anything. Behavior scientists refer to that change as an independent variable and your performance as the dependent variable.
So let’s say, for example, you wanted to improve your frequency of jogging (dependent variable). You might buy a new pair of sneakers (independent variable) to make running a little easier. However, the only way you’ll know for sure that the sneakers have made a difference is by tracking how much you were running before you bought the shoes. In other words, you need to take baseline data before intervening with your shoe purchasing behavior.
Now, if you instead use someone else’s running performance as your benchmark, I’m going to be all over you about it. I’ll be taunting you every time you try to run the 15 miles that you saw that fitness model run while vlogging the other day on Instagram. I’ll point out every missed goal or stone you tripped over until you give up and decide to stop running altogether.
So here’s the thing. You can’t evaluate your progress against anyone else’s because their baseline doesn’t look like your baseline. Maybe they started running as a teenager for their high school track team, but you just started 3 months ago to get into better shape. The thing about baseline data is that it not only gives you a sense of who you used to be compared to who you are today but also helps you assess whether you will be the person you want to be tomorrow.
More importantly, baseline data lets you know whether you’ve made any progress and whether what you changed (e.g., buying new shoes) is making a difference. So evaluate and analyze your data compared to your own previous data, not to others’ data—otherwise I will be there to sabotage any progress you could otherwise make.
3. “What’s past is prologue”
Everything that’s happened to you throughout the course of your life has brought you to this very moment. Every person you’ve met and everything that you’ve done (or has been done to you) have sculpted you into the work of art that you see in the mirror every morning. The same concept, as it turns out, applies to everyone else as well. In other words, everyone’s life has been uniquely their own. Behavior science refers to this phenomenon as a history of conditioning.
A history of conditioning is basically all of the learning experiences (and the conditions under which you learned) you’ve had throughout life. This concept implies that analyzing your performance at anything, really, can only be accurate when you’re measuring against yourself. Simply put, you’re the only one in the world who has lived your wonderful-at-times but once-in-a-while-awful, very specific life.
In other words, no one’s had your advantages or disadvantages, and trust me, I know all of your best-kept secrets. So avoid contrasting yourself with anyone else because you have no idea what they have experienced or encountered in life.
4. The scorecard of life
For this last point, let’s use a business example since I’ve been nagging you about working too much lately. In organizational behavior management (OBM), a sub-discipline of behavior science, OBM professionals find clever ways—via evaluations, direct observation, interviews of direct reports or supervisors, and more—to analyze the performance of different people in various positions at the organizations in which they consult.
Regardless of the technique, OBMers (as they have self-nicknamed) tend to create some sort of balanced scorecard system to organize data before analyzing it. A balanced scorecard is basically a table with three columns: one for the list of performance measures being analyzes, one for the scale (e.g., 1–10) to give a visual analysis of how someone is doing on those measures, and one for weighting so that the reviewer can determine how important each measure is depending on the needs of the organization, among other things. That’s where the balanced part comes in. Companies balance profit with customer service and a variety of measures to shape and maintain a balanced workforce.
Interestingly, scorecards are unique to each company, position, and employee because, well, the goals are different for each company, position, and employee. This same analysis extends beyond the corporate walls and into personal lives where people (sometimes unbeknownst to them) create and abide by a list of performance standards based on what is and what is not important to them. In essence, they create a scorecard for their lives. This concept is especially important when evaluating your performance in relation to other people. Someone you know (or see online) might perform better than you at a particular task.
Let’s say, for example, you see a LinkedIn influencer with a more accomplished resume than you and think, “I have been a failure.” Yes, that person might have earned one more credential than you or volunteered at the local adopt-a-pet fundraising drive, but you don’t know what’s going on in their life. Maybe all they do is work and volunteer their time. Maybe they don’t have good relationships with their friends or family because they spend all day, every day, sitting behind a desk or begging people to adopt that adorable little toy poodle propped up in the store window.
The point is this: YOU determine what’s important to you, what your goals are, and what your vision for a successful life looks like. And as it turns out, so does everyone else—making an evaluation of your performance compared to their performance, well, completely irrelevant. In the end, you create your own scorecard of life with your own personal goals, scale of success, and ranking system for what is and what is not important to YOU specifically.
Got all that? I’m glad we had this chat. Now, don’t force me to make life unpleasant—let’s sit down and start figuring out what’s important to you, identify what you want to improve, start taking data on it, and figure out how to change it. Ready?