Still in university while many of your friends already graduated?
Still working on a ‘9 to 5’ while 90% of the internet is living the digital nomad lifestyle?
Still dating unsuccessfully while half your friend group gets married and has children on the way?
This is a dreadful feeling right? The anxiety growing inside of you that tells you that you’re way behind everyone else.
I’m in my 20s and I see it everywhere. I see it in my friends, colleagues, fellow students, hell, I see it in myself too. Somehow we all are convinced that we’re running a race to an imaginary finish line. Whoever is there last has lost.
Our inbuilt reason that keeps us running
It’s an inbuilt human tendency to compare. You measure yourself and your accomplishments with those of other people from similar social groups — your colleagues at work, people of your age and generation.
Based on René Girard’s philosophy, looking to others for comparison might even be the source of our goals and aspirations in life. We look to others in search for something to want.
Hmm, seems everyone is living the digital nomad lifestyle (and they look so happy in their videos!), I want that too.
This is called mimetic desire, a subconscious mimicking of other peoples desires. According to Girard, even our goals in life are borrowed from other people.
There’s a good reason for it too. Evolutionary psychology tells us that comparing ourselves with other peers keeps the social stability and is the driver of progress.
One the one hand, comparing our behavior and standing constantly to others is great way to achieve social conformity. It’s good if a group has a common goal, as every book on leadership and teamwork will tell you. Conflicting goals and beliefs create conflict and can lead to destruction. Hence, we want to stay in the social lane and do what is expected of us. We want to be a good citizen, a good partner, and a good son or daughter. This is cooperation induced by social conformity and it’s the basis for society and civilization.
On the other hand, comparing ourselves to our peers is also the source of progress. Seeing others do better in any aspect of life often creates this feeling of envy. We look at where we’re at and cannot help but think:
Why is she getting promoted already and I’m not?
Why is he always getting the hot girls?
Why is she earning more than I do?
This feeling of envy is painful. And pain is your body’s way of telling you that you need to pay attention and change something — no matter if it’s physical or emotional pain. It drives you to improve, to get what they’ve got, to achieve what they’ve achieved. Comparing creates competition and competition creates faster progress.
Evolution is fundamentally based on the principle of competition and in a way constantly comparing organisms to see which is the fittest. This is the reason why you’re always comparing and checking if you’re better than others. Because from an evolutionary perspective it’s beneficial for the human species.
However, there are two problems with our compulsive need to compare.
“Comparison is the thief of joy.”
Theodore Roosevelt said that and everyone familiar with envy knows it’s true. Comparing yourself to someone that is better can leave you miserable. We can’t really help it either.
Think of 9 year-old Jenny. She is getting this cool bike for her birthday. She wanted one for the whole year and was thrilled to get it with the perfect color (red) and those little white stripes on the side. But then she drives to school the next day and Britney (the bitch) got a bike from her parents too. Hers has those glittery ribbons on the handles that look fabulous. Hers has also six gears instead of four so she’s a lot faster. Suddenly, Jenny isn’t so happy with her bike after all. She wants six gears too and those glittery ribbons. Comparing her bike with Britney’s robbed her of the joy she felt when getting it the day before.
Of course, there are a few things wrong here. First of all, just because Britney has the better bike doesn’t mean she has it better. Because, as a matter of fact, Britney’s parents don’t take the time to spend time with her and compensate their lack of affection with expensive gifts. So yeah, if Jenny would see it from that perspective she probably wouldn’t want the bike in exchange for loving parents. But comparison doesn’t work like that. Subconsciously we’re comparing apples with apples and oranges with oranges.
Insert social media and you have a new kind of shitshow. Because we’re always showing the best side of our life and not the shitty ones, our polished social media profiles represent the best version of what we have and do. That’s why you’ll never win when scrolling through the feed, because you’ll automatically compare your shitty car with the cool one your friend got, while he is comparing his non-existent girlfriend with yours. Both end up envious and miserable.
The second reason is that life isn’t a marathon, it’s a treadmill.
Running on a treadmill
We already established that to feel behind you have to compare yourself to someone, the crux is that today it can be everyone. Literally everyone. That can be a good or a bad thing. For most people it’s the latter.
You can always compare yourself to someone that’s better or worse than you at anything anytime. This is important. At any point in time you can choose to compare your career in software development with your co-worker that got his first job. You can also compare yourself with Bill Gates. Guess which one makes you more miserable?
Your brain does a pretty good job to compare your accomplishments with peers from your social group, which minimizes comparing yourself with outliers like Bill Gates. But again, because of social media you can now have outliers in your digital social group all the time. This can be motivating for sure, it can also be a source of unhappiness, because your chances of achieving something similar to Bill Gates are minimal (sorry to tell you this).
However, even if you surpass the people you compare yourself to, your brain will quickly start to look for new comparisons, people that are again better than you. Once you’re close to the supposed finish line, your brain just moves it a bit further away, so you keep on running — as on a treadmill. All of this to maximize your evolutionary potential.
Wow. This was intended to be an uplifting essay. After re-reading it again I realized it all sounds pretty hopeless. But I truly don’t think this is the case. As Albert Camus described in The Myth of Sisyphus — about the Greek guy rolling a bolder up the same hill for eternity — we should think of Sisyphus as a happy person. If we recognize that we’re all running on treadmills created by our brain, we can realize that there is no race going on (there is no spoon!). You’re not behind because nobody is winning or loosing.
You’re free to enjoy the run.
Thank you for reading.