The Comparing Game

A few years back I was really into a game called Dance Dance Revolution (or DDR for short). My friend and I used to visit a local arcade and play for hours at a time. One time, my friend (who was a lot better than me) decided to play the game on an easier difficulty and play one of my favorite songs. In doing so, he beat my score on the song, and removed probably one of the only highscores I had on the game.

I remember I got very angry at him for beating my score. Why did he have to choose to play on an easier difficulty and beat me? I made a lot of fuss about the issue and the topic quickly devolved into a heated argument. The whole situation made a lot of tension between the two of us and left us both in sour moods ruining the rest of the day.

So, if this sounds similar to the topic I covered last week, it’s because it is. This is another case where needing to win bites you in the butt. This is a bad habit that I like to call the comparing game.

The comparing game is what happens when you start determining your self worth by how you compare to other people. If you think you are better than others, you feel good about yourself, but if you feel worse, you get a situation like me arguing over a highscore.

There are several issues with the comparing game. One of these is that when you play the comparing game, you gamble with your self worth. You might actually be very good at something, but if you compare yourself to the wrong people you’ll feel very incompetent. In my personal case, I was actually quite good at DDR, but I was playing with people who were very serious about the game. They had been playing for years and even participated in several tournaments. This caused me to have a very fragile pride about the game and feel very concerned about a silly number on an arcade machine’s screen. Thankfully I had some confidence in my own ability, or I may have never kept enjoying DDR as long as I did.

The other big issue is that the comparing game heavily encourages you to be competitive. In many cases this is fine, but it becomes an issue when it’s counter-productive. You’ll often see this in workplaces or in teams where one member will withhold information, shift blame, or make another team member look bad. In other words, you become a terrible team-player.

My dad experienced a great example of this when he helped the Democratic Party of Chester County with their website. As my dad helped the group, he discovered that in addition to the Democratic Party of Chester County there was also the Chester County Democrats, and as their names imply, they were basically identical organizations.

The only difference between these two groups was that the leaders of each group both wanted to be the official Democratic Chairperson of Chester County, an empty title. The groups were so focused on comparing themselves to each  other that they constantly competed. They’d see who got the most votes, who had the better website, more members, etc. Their competition got so petty, that they would intentionally hold meetings at exactly the same time on the same dates just to prevent people from visiting the other group.

My dad never really followed up with the groups to see what happened with them, but you can imagine how this could be detrimental. Instead of working together to address political issues that mattered, get valuable people in office, and make the positive changes, the local party just basically wrestled with itself and got nowhere.

So, how do you address this behavior? Well, there are a couple of steps.

Catch yourself in the act

This is the first step for changing any habit. If you want to change a behavior, you can’t be on autopilot, you have to know when it happens and make a conscious choice to do something different. So, your first goal typically is to check in with yourself at least once a day. In our case, you want to stop and ask yourself if you’ve been playing the comparing game lately, and if so, when have you been doing it, why, and how would you change it.

Recognize that comparing is arbitrary

It’s very easy to focus on all the things other people have completed or accomplished and feel that it directly impacts you, but in most cases this is not true. I remember a friend once telling me how they felt, so useless, because their sibling had written books and done all sorts of amazing thing with their lives.

We conversed about the topic for awhile, and afterwards, I had an epiphany. Why did it matter? Who cares what your siblings have done? They are them, and you are you. Just because they have been successful, doesn’t mean you can’t be.

It’s funny how lost we get with comparing. We get so focused on how much better or worse we’re doing than other people that we forget how meaningless it can be. We might focus on how somebody is so much better than us, but we overlook the fact that maybe they’ve been doing it for ten years longer, or we might not notice that they’re good at that one thing, but terrible at everything else.

The fact is that when you compare two people, you are comparing apples and oranges. Yes, you’re both people, you might even have a similar background, but everybody is unique and very different. What’s easy for one person can be hard for another, and we all have different quirks, strengths, experiences, and ideas. When you start recognizing how different each person is, you recognize how futile it is to get caught up in comparing yourself.

Find the opportunity

Let’s say you’ve found somebody you’ve been playing the comparing game with, what do you do? Typically, when we’re playing the comparing game we’re engaging in what’s called a zero-sum game. A zero-sum game is a game where for every person who wins, there also has to be a loser.

When you play the comparing game, the rules are: if I’m doing better than you, I win and you lose and if you are doing better than me, you win and I lose. To break out of this game, we want to think more cooperatively. How can we both win? How could we both lose?

When you start thinking this way, you start seeing opportunities. For example, if somebody is better than you, maybe you can learn from them. This way, they still get to be awesome at what they do (win), and you gain a resource that allows you to improve yourself and perform better (win).

If you encounter somebody who is better than you, you may also want to add them to your team, because if you are both pretty good at what you do, imagine what you can accomplish together. This is also a double-win.

Likewise, if somebody is worse than you, don’t prevent them from improving. Thinking in terms of a win-win, you want to actually help them, because in the future they may return the favor, and you can both benefit from them performing better.

Here’s an example of a client of mine going through this process.

I had a client (we’ll call her Sandra), who had a personal business but was finding the business to be too time-consuming, and wanted to hire an assistant. She went through several resumes and found somebody perfect. Not only was she excellent as an assistant, but she probably knew even more about the business than Sandra.

This gave Sandra pause, because the assistant made her feel inadequate. “What if she’s better than me?” “What if all my clients decided they liked her more and she steals them from me?”

We talked for some time about the issue, and Sandra recognized she was playing the comparing game. To deal with it, we began to ask, “what’s the opportunity?” Sandra recognized that if she hired this assistant, she’d know her company was in very good hands, she’d have somebody could possibly even teach her how to run things better, and she could spend way less time worrying about everything getting done. When she recognized how valuable this assistant would be, she jumped on the opportunity. Last I heard, she was very happy with the assistant helping her and it has been an incredible asset to her business.

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