We each have our own individual lives and situations. We have unique backgrounds and traits that have made us who we are today. But yet one persistent trait that seems to follow us all is the need and desire to compare ourselves to others.
In the ever evolving world of social media and the celebrated celebrity status, we find that comparing ourselves to people of power, authority, and celebrity, whether it be real or fake –especially on social media-is prevalent throughout each and every day.
We jump onto Facebook or Instagram and see our friends at Coachella or having what seems like a better birthday than we had. We see the trips and glorified lives in which our friends are constantly living and we cannot help but feel the comparison of our own lives to those we see.
This is prevalent in the business world as well. How many times have you looked at your job and been happy or content with it only to jump on LinkedIn and see a former classmate with a better job or job title? Or a coworker who “phones in” their work but is paid twice as much as yourself?
A recent study showed that millennials are spending more money today than they historically ever have for one simple reason: fear of missing out.
With our world now so interconnected and easily accessible to the masses, we are constantly inundated with the ability to compare ourselves to those around us, and in turn, feel as though we are failing, or in other cases, less than what we actually are.
This provides a path for negative emotions to arise which can destroy us. It brings about anxiety that we are inadequate; jealousy and envy that someone has something we do not; resentment and dissatisfaction with what we do have which lead to the lies we feed ourselves to cope with the resentment and envy. How often have you heard that little voice in your head say, “He only got the promotion because his father owns the company.” Or, “Well, her boyfriend is rich so obviously he could fly her to Europe for a quick trip.”
In Robert Greene’s latest book, The Laws of Human Nature, he explains, “We almost never directly express the envy we are feeling… all of us feel envy, the sensation that others have more of what we want.” But how do we fight off these emotions when we are constantly being reminded of other people’s “fantastic” lives? One way is to remember that there will always be others who have more than us, and it is about what we have, in the present moment, that matters most. What we do not want to do is allow these emotions to erode our wellbeing. By allowing the amalgamation of these negative emotions to rule our mind, we risk losing the present moment, and in turn, risk allowing those emotions to control our actions. As Robert Greene states, “Sitting with one’s envy over a long period of time can be painful and frustrating. Feeling righteous indignation against the envied person, however, can be invigorating. Acting on envy, doing something to harm the other person, brings satisfaction… although the satisfaction is short-lived because enviers always find something new to envy.” Being envious of others creates a never ending cycle of negativity within our lives. We must work to combat these emotions.
In his fantastic book, Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday directly addresses the problem of social media and how it plays into our comparison with others. “Almost universally, the kind of performance we give on social media is positive. It’s more “Let me tell you how well things are going. Look how great I am.” It’s rarely the truth: “I’m scared. I’m struggling. I don’t know.”
Long ago, Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed that comparison is the thief of joy, and that quote has never been more prevalent than today due to how interconnected and accessible everyone is.
But this is not a 21st century problem. The stoics themselves suffered all of the same emotions we currently do, albeit through different circumstances. They did not have social media and were not as easily connected to others as we are today. But think about Epictetus, born into this world as a slave to a wealthy family nearly 2,000 years ago. How easy would it have been for him to grow up seeing the riches of others and allow those emotions of cynicism, anger, and resentment to dictate and control his fate?
In his journal, Meditations, Marcus Aurelius, the most powerful man in the world at the time, had to remind himself to be present and only concerned with himself. He stated, “How much time he saves who does not look to see what his neighbors says or does or thinks.” Marcus knew that comparing himself to others did nothing but waste time. He accepted what he had, accepted the cards and fate he was dealt, and made the most of that time and opportunity. “Love the hand that fate deals you and play it as your own.” In essence, he loved and accepted his fate. Amor Fati.
But comparison doesn’t end there. It also blinds us to the positives we have in life. By always comparing ourselves to others, we risk losing the most important thing within our control, the present moment. Epictetus himself even stated, after a prized possession of his was stolen, “a man loses only that which he already has.”
We must therefore fight the urge to compare ourselves to others. It does us no good to sit and dwell on what we do not have. We have the present moment, and what we make of that time. Nothing more.
But how does one go against fighting this urge? We cannot simply shun our friends or social media. We cannot isolate ourselves to a cave and never see another human being again. We must learn to coexist in the world with the knowledge and acceptance that there will always be a tiny voice in our head, egging us on to compare ourselves or our situation to others. But we must train our mind to be strong against this. We must fight this temptation and extinguish it.
In his amazing and simple book, Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends on It, Kamal Ravikant explains a technique James Altucher taught him. He states in the book that when a useless thought enters his mind, he immediately cuts it off with two simple words, “Not useful.” This simple yet profound technique is the beginning of finding ways to control negative thoughts that take you away from your purpose in life and the present moment. By cutting off the serpent’s head, you are stopping the thought in its tracks. At first, it may not work. You may say “Not useful” and the thought still lingers. But your mind is a muscle, and thus must be built up the way a weightlifter might build up his body. By repeatedly performing this act, you are creating new grooves in your mind, and from that, new synapses will form to conquer your negative thoughts as they arise. You will get to the point where your reaction is no longer envy or jealousy, but rather, indifference.
The same goes for thoughts of people comparing themselves to you. Does it truly matter if someone compares themselves to you? You have your life, with your own goals and desires. They have the same for themselves. As Robert Greene advises, “It is a fact of social life that there are always people who are superior to us in wealth, intelligence, likeability, and other qualities.” So who is someone else to come in and compare their life to your own? Does it make you feel better to know you have more than someone else, or that you are more successful than others? Does it provide you a boost of confidence? A feeling of accomplishment? If so, you may need to check your ego. As Ryan Holiday states in Ego is the Enemy, “Silence. The ability to deliberately keep yourself out of the conversation and subsist without its validation. Silence is the respite of the confident and the strong.”
When it comes to comparison, Epictetus himself also states, “It is actually a good thing to be thought foolish and simple with regard to matters that don’t concern us. Don’t be concerned with other people’s impressions of you. They are dazzled and deluded by appearances. Stick with your purpose. This alone will strengthen your will and give your life coherence.”
We must therefore form actionable steps and exercises to control and extinguish the negative emotions from our lives. We must learn to stay present in the current moment; we must appreciate the fact that we have our own lives which are populated with our own goals, desires, and wants; we must realize that we are in control of ourselves and our lives-there will always be things outside of our control, but stoicism is about understanding what is in our own control and accepting those that are not; we must make the most of our time on this earth and work, ever so diligently, to grab hold and achieve our purpose; we must find ways to properly create new neurological pathways so that when we do feel those pangs of envy arise through comparison, we are no longer affected by them; and we must create the work and environment we want for our lives.
Because at the end of the day, as Epictetus stated, you must “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.”