Comparison is the thief of joy.
–– President Theodore Roosevelt
By John Millen
Here in the United States this weekend we celebrate the Labor Day holiday.
This traditional break between summer and fall is a good opportunity to reflect on where we find ourselves at work, and in life.
A sense of frustration in corporate workplaces is a key problem I see in my travels. People complain about not being promoted quickly enough, that their rival has a better title, that someone else is favored by the boss.
This is not confined to young, ambitious employees; a sense that someone else is unfairly benefiting runs from the front lines to the boardroom in most companies.
It’s not our fault. We humans are hardwired as tribal, territorial animals. We think if someone else is winning, we must be losing.
And, of course, this fear of loss, or fear of less, is not confined to work. We carry it throughout our lives.
Back in the day this comparison was called keeping up with the Joneses. That meant envying your neighbors’ possessions and spending to compete with their status and conspicuous consumption.
Social media envy
Social media has exponentially compounded this effect. People focus on the “perfect” lives of others: their expensive possessions, their fun-filled travel, their pristine family lives.
This is why “influencers” on Instagram and other media make millions from sales of products linked to the status, identity and lifestyle of their followers.
This is also why social media consumption is linked to depression, anxiety and other maladies. Tech companies have mastered and exploited our most basic human survival instincts.
Perception versus reality
What we fail to realize is that these perceptions we have of others, while real to us, are not reality. You never know the pain and struggles people have behind what we might think of as their perfect lives.
During my leadership workshops, I ask people to bring and tell a three-minute story they are comfortable sharing from their work or personal lives. With most groups, a handful of people will share stories of family or personal challenges that bring tears to your eyes. From simply seeing people in the workplace, and maybe envying their success, you have no idea where they really are in their lives.
Secret of life
The best advice I have is the old saying:the secret of life is not having what you want, it’s wanting what you have.
Follow that advice and you’ll find more contentment in your life. Here are a few other tips that might help:
1. Recognize what you have
If you take inventory of your life, you’ll find great riches: your family and friends, your skills, your work.
2. Express gratitude
We are blessed. I’ve lost family members and friends and it’s not cliché that people don’t think about status and possessions at the end of their lives. It’s their relationships and experiences that matter.
Giving thanks for what you have can change your life. I have a practice, upon waking in the morning (even before I look at my phone!), of focusing on three things I intend to be grateful for that day. It might be a family member or friend, a client I enjoy working with, or something as simple as the fresh opportunities of a new day.
The other gratitude strategy I use is to be grateful when I’m under stress during the day. We believe the myth that we can multitask, but all we do is switch our thoughts back and forth. This means that when we feel envious, or angry, or depressed, purposely thinking of something we’re grateful for will literally change our minds. Try it. You can’t be grateful and jealous at the same time!
3. Realize you are perfect as you are
The U.S. economy derives some 70 percent of its power from consumer spending. To promote that consumption, we are constantly bombarded by advertising to create a sense of deprivation, a feeling of unease about what we don’t have. Don’t identify your worth with your status and stuff. You are perfect as you are.
4. Stuff impulse buying
This doesn’t mean you have to be a minimalist living with a chair, a toothbrush, and a pair of jeans. But considering purchases carefully can make a huge difference.
Paul, a friend and neighbor of mine, recently handed me a print of this fascinating article about how the father of Rob Gronkowski, the retired NFL Patriots tight end, taught his five boys the value of money. He made them work and pay for sports equipment even as kids, and the family had a rule that if they desire something they should wait for two weeks before buying. Usually they’d pass on the item.
Unlike many NFL players who are broke despite multi-million-dollar contracts, Gronkowski banked all the money he was paid to join the league and, his father says, until a few years ago Rob was wearing the same jeans he wore in high school.
5. Practice mindfulness
Our level of distraction is unprecedented. Not only with the pull of our phones and social media, but with the blurring of lines between work and home life. When we’re home with family, we’re still at work, and when we’re on the job, we’re thinking about home.
People also spend a lot of time living in the past or contemplating the future. As I said in a recent wedding toast, I believe the secret to life is being present and enjoying the current moment. That’s all we have.
Life is too short. Why waste your time comparing yourself to others?
If you have thoughts, feedback or questions for me, just visit my contact page.