Want to be Happy at Work? Stop Comparing

I recently had a conversation with my son that opened my eyes to the comparative nature of grade school.
“If I could just get into the sixth grade reading class, then ‘Little Miss Perfect’ would stop bragging to me,” my eight-year-old son, Max, said to me last week.

“What do you mean, Max?” I responded.

“Well, I’m in the fifth grade reading class, and she is in the sixth grade reading class, even though we’re the same age. If I got into the sixth grade reading class, then that would show her, and then she’d stop bragging to me about how smart she is.”

“What would it do for you if she stopped bragging, Max?”

“It would make me have a better life!” he yelled impatiently.

Max’s concern about “Little Miss Perfect” was his way of articulating the competitive and comparative nature of his social environment. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t seem to measure up to someone that he saw as more skilled than he, and it was eating away at him. At the ripe old age of eight, Max was already feeling the heat of competition nipping at his feet.

Unfortunately for Max, it’s not going to get any better.

Comparison is one of the primary tools used at work to measure success. How is a Wall Street analyst supposed to fully grasp a corporation’s performance unless it is benchmarked against a set of peer companies? How can corporate executives decide which of their employees should get a promotion unless they compare the experience, skills and past performance of all their employees? It’s comparison that allows the brain to bucket information in manageable and logical ways. It enables rational decision-making.

Yet with all its wonderful uses in the workplace, it turns out that comparison is quite un-useful at one thing: creating workplace satisfaction. When employees let the comparative nature of business creep into how they view themselves, the resulting feelings about work and self are depressing. This is because comparison is a losing game. Its human nature to “compare up,” and there is always someone with more brains, more work ethic, more whatever to compare against. Thus, employees who compare become tortured souls, wrapped in a never ending state of “not quite good enough.” In Max’s case, the fact that he reads above his age is of no consequence to him. He has his eyes fixated on “Little Miss Perfect” who, in his opinion, has more than he.

Speaking of Max, let me describe the rest of the conversation:

“So Max, it sounds like your end goal here is to have a better life, right?”

“Yes, and showing “Little Miss Perfect” that I am good enough to get into the sixth grade reading class will help me have that better life.”

“Perhaps, Max, perhaps. But you know there may be another way to have a better life. What if you stopped caring what “Little Miss Perfect” thought about you? What if, when she started bragging to you, you told her that she is very smart and that you are very happy for her? And what if you really meant it? And what if simply doing your personal best every day was enough to make you happy?”

While Max hasn’t quite warmed up to this idea yet, I think it’s worth it for adults to consider it at work. Think about what would happen to overall workplace satisfaction if each employee’s satisfaction came from internal, rather than external, factors. What If employees stopped comparing themselves with others and started comparing themselves with…well, themselves? What if someone’s personal best was good enough? I think this would change the work environment dramatically. There would be no need to be upset when a peer gets a promotion. There would be less office politics and back-biting. There would be less stress during the day and more restful sleep at night.

I believe that workplace satisfaction starts with using an internal measuring stick. It comes from the knowledge that one has done his or her very best. If this is true, then satisfaction is achievable for all of us because our personal best is entirely within our control.

At least that’s what I’m trying to get Max to believe.

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