How comparing yourself to others is bad for your decisions

Compare yourself to others to see how you're doing. But when it comes to making the best decisions, your endgame matters most. If how you feel about how you size up drives your choices, you could end up where you don't want to be.

We humans like to compare ourselves to other people. It’s not hard to get why: we want to know if we’re doing OK, and knowing that we’re doing better than others is a good sign. Our sense of social value comes from comparing ourselves to others. So does our sense of personal worth. Anyone who says they’ve never felt crappy about themselves after seeing someone else’s amazing life on social media is probably lying.

A good chunk of our brain energy goes to thinking about how we compare. It’s such a deal that there’s a whole area of research devoted to it, and a theory named after it (social comparison theory).

But does information about how you size up improve your decisions? I don't think so.

Good decision-making requires a somewhat clear idea of your endgame. Whether you’re looking forward 30 years, 30 days, or 30 minutes, deciding with a goal in mind keeps you from deciding in circles and ending up where you don’t want to be.

This isn’t to say that you need a crystal-clear picture. Life is unpredictable; you need to adapt as things come up. But it profoundly helps to know the general direction in which you’re headed.

We can divide life goals or endgames into two types: those that don’t involve how we compare to others and those that do.

Life goals that don’t involve social comparison include “living on the beach” or “having a fulfilling romantic relationship.” Whether or not others live on the beach won’t get you any closer to living on the beach. Only your decisions will get you there. Seeing others in blissful relationships won’t make your chances of bliss more or less likely; only your choices will. With these types of goals, social comparisons can throw you off your endgame: your decisions could end up being about feeling better in the moment rather than being where you want to be. That’s no bueno.

Life goals that require social comparisons include “being successful in my career,” or “winning a medal in the Olympics.” You have to compare yourself to others to know if you’ve achieved your goal.

But there’s a difference between using comparison to determine how you’re doing and using comparison to decide what to do.

The likelihood of success in most endeavors depends on specific choices. For example, to be a successful competitive athlete, you need to make specific decisions about how to improve your technique, conditioning, and mental game. There’s a kind of science behind it. What your competitor is or isn’t doing doesn’t change the choices you need to make to be the best athletic version of yourself. Even the choice to study your competitor should be much less about concluding whether you’re better than about deciding what kind of a strategy will beat them. Scientifically.

Same with starting a business. To turn an idea into a business, you need good product-market fit, strong positioning, and the right resources. There’s a sort of science there. It doesn’t matter how much money your competitors are making; you still need to make certain decisions in a certain way, and they aren’t any different if you’re ahead or behind. Compare yourself to your competitors because you need to know if you’re beating them. But if your decisions are all about chasing your competition, they can blind you to opportunities they don’t see. It could cost you the success you crave.

It's not easy to fight the urge to compare. So instead of fighting it, shift your focus. Keep your eye on the prize: your endgame. Think about you, not them – what you want, how you want your future to look, how you want the world you live in to be like. Then design choices that head you in that direction.

And then, one day, voila! You’ll be a winner. No matter what anyone else is doing.