Happiness warning: This conversation pertains to all aspects of your life, not just physical fitness.
It has been a while since I chatted with you about Why I don’t care about your Podium Finish (or Mine). Since then it has been one of my most widely read articles. Those who know me well, know that I am extremely competitive, but I would like to think they have always thought it to be an appropriately targeted style of competitive spirit. At the same time, one of the terms and conditions I set in place early when I mentor anyone is “you will not compare your performance (e.g. running times) or attributes (e.g. body fat %) with that of any other person”. So, if that’s the case, do I think it is good for you to compete? Yes. And, do I think it is good for you to compare? Yes. So then, is there a catch? What is the framework within which competing and comparing can be life-enhancing?
I will speak swiftly about competing, comparing, benchmarking, competition and control, and then make recommendations around compassion, detachment and improvement. In a few minutes, I hope you will have a happier and clearer path to follow.
Researchers in the area of happiness and social psychology have demonstrated that in order to enjoy an activity and derive happiness from it, the level of difficulty has to be just slightly higher than what you are currently capable of. Have you noticed that when you take up something like badminton or squash, those who are a lot better than you do not really want to play against you if they can help it. Or have you noticed how you do not want to always train for a race with someone who is much slower than you?
Researchers have also shown that comparing yourself with others does not lead to truly sustainable happiness. Comparisons with those much better than us can be demoralizing. Comparisons with those much worse than us can lead to arrogance. At the same time, comparisons are inherent to the survival of living things. Even single-cell organisms compare the immediate environment to what is ideal for their proliferation to decide what their next move should be.
Comparing and Competing
So, if you are to compete, and you are to compare, then how do you do this in a way that leads to greater happiness and fulfilment? You probably know the answer to this already having heard it often – and even in my previous article. Do not compare with and compete against others, compare with and compete against yourself. Now, let us examine this more closely and try to understand why it works.
GPF – Genetic Potential Fitness
In Why I don’t care about your Podium Finish I had described how the very slow lady who was getting faster was developing herself as a person, whereas the complacent lady with better genes for that domain who was winning races was, perhaps, not. It was in this earlier news article that I first publicly mentioned what I call GPF or Genetic Potential Fitness. Although, at first sight it appears that I am talking about physical fitness, in fact, I think of this as being applicable to any domain of your life that interests you. From running to sleep (yes, you can train yourself to sleep in the best way possible), from body strength to singing (do you know someone who has a lovely voice but never makes it to a performance stage because they are too lazy to practice?), from calisthenics to cooking (isn’t it amazing to come across a teenager who can knock your socks off with an amazing dessert?).
You and I both have immense potential in each of the areas of life that interests us but we rarely get close to that potential. We allow ourselves to wallow in the middle of our abilities, far from our genetic potential.
Benchmarking vs The Competition
Once we leave school and college education, unless we are professional athletes most of us have no formal competitive benchmark placed before us to beat. Sure, a sales professional has to beat his competitor’s sales in the next quarter, a housewife feels the pressure to cook her husband’s favourite dish better than his mother does, and a fund investment manager attempts to beat the industry benchmark agreed with her client. The rest of us tend to find some path through the various constraints we face while trying to produce better results, whether in the kitchen, office, boardroom or bedroom.
Cross-sectional vs Time-series
When we compare with others we are typically doing a “cross-sectional comparison” – an observation of many people at a given point in time. Although that has value in some settings, and perhaps can even be one form of short-term motivation, I prefer to think of “time-series comparisons” where I am the only subject in the data set and observe progression through time. Why do I do this and what is the special strategic advantage in doing this?
Whenever we announce the result of some study, typically of an activity and its effect, there is always the implied question “what control group did you use as a benchmark?”. Unless you can study yourself along with clones of yourself for a cross-sectional self-study, it is really not possible to fully and precisely understand the effect of an activity on only you as a specific individual – be it the effect of regular exercise on your health, giving up sweetened drinks, or the introduction of meditation into your life. However, you can do something almost equivalent to that in a manner that will lead to greater happiness.
Although you can’t do a cross-sectional comparative study of you with your clones, you can do a time-series study of yourself. The DNA is held fixed at least! Besides keeping track of your actions (the ‘process’), we can also keep track of your outcomes (the ‘goals’) over time.
The beauty of this approach of ‘self-comparison’ is that if you approach the dimension being pursued (e.g. your speed with Sudoku) with ‘self-compassion‘ (which, incidentally, is the other attribute that increases happiness) there is unlikely to be jealousy or even envy. After all, when was the last time you were jealous of your recent self? So, comparing with yourself will not produce negative happiness outcomes. (Of course, we might all look back much further with nostalgia or yearning at our more youthful days.)
If you set your personal targets wisely to be just slightly better than what you think you are currently capable of, then the competition is also healthy! Often, we set unrealistic targets and then are not happy with the outcomes. Perhaps, one day soon I will speak about target-setting specifically.
Conditioning for Happiness
Whenever we have an outcome that is better or worse than what we hoped for, we can explain the difference between what we expected and what transpired with some obvious factors. And, often some of the difference remains unaccounted for given the information we possess. [I did something along those lines at a population level when I made this assertion.]
Now, think about the following – when you compare with others in daily life, you really have no clue about all the factors that lead to their performance. (You almost always don’t know what constraints or opportunities the other person had.) So, then, the comparison with them leads to very little value add to yourself. When you compare against your own (recent or distant) past, however, you have so much more information and there can be a lot more value captured (in the form of actual learning and progress, or even plain-and-simple ‘satisfaction’).
If you record information about yourself then understanding why your performance was better or worse than expected is easy to do in a dispassionate manner. The more information and the richer the information you record, the more you will be able to understand yourself, your processes and your performances. For example, “I swam slower today because of a slight cold and blocked nose”. The positive feedback loop also serves as a wonderful tool for self-motivation.
Inward Looking is Forward Looking
A key distinction between comparing and competing with others rather than with yourself is that of the target view being outward versus inward. The more you look inward, with or without explicit recording of data, the less you will find the need to be emotionally affected by the performance of others. Never mind what everyone else is up to, focus on your own growth towards being a more intelligent soul. The more you try to improve by controlling yourself, the less you will find the need to control other people or events [a surefire way of being unhappy in the short, medium and long run].
Making Outward Looking also Forward Looking
When you are observing others, make it about process observation along with performance observation. Observe the changes in process that lead to differences in performance for that person. That will allow you to learn without comparing yourself with that person – you are comparing that person with that same person for your own self-improvement! There is, however, no competition with that person!
Final Wisdom – Interested in Outcome, Unemotional about Result
When you work hard, you are interested in the result. However, it is important to develop a habit of being unemotional about the result that transpires- you are not your result. This form of ‘detached attachment’ is good yogic wisdom and can be made easier if you can attribute your performance to various documented factors, and attribute the (tiny) balance i.e. what you cannot explain to ‘luck’ or ‘chance’. Perhaps data can help you transcend!
I wish you happy comparing and happy competing for your personal growth and fulfillment!
Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.