Comparison is the Thief of Joy


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At the Canadian Olympic marathon trials, the odds on favorite was Cam Levins,  who had recently broken the 43-year old national record in the marathon. It wasn’t Trevor Hofbauer, a former basketball player who had risen through the ranks of amateur running to notch a very impressive 2:16 marathon. Even with such an improvement, Hofbauer’s marathon best would put him over a mile behind when Levins and a few other of Canada’s best.

Yet, at the end of the marathon, it was Hofbauer who pulled off a massive 7-minute personal best. And he did it all while not wearing a watch. Hofbauer explained, “When I went back to Calgary, I started using pace again as an indication of how I was doing. But I didn’t like it at all–it really got into my head. I started comparing previous training blocks to this training block. So I took it off again. I don’t use pace now, I just go off of time and effort. And that was how I ran today. I didn’t have to watch so when I felt good, I continued to push.”

In today’s data driven world, we live in a constant state of comparison. Our smartphones compare how many steps we take each day and how much time we spend on various apps. There’s data on how much time we spend in Microsoft word or excel versus mindlessly browsing the internet. We can get scores for our credit, our health, our fitness, our sleep, and our finances. In just about any endeavor we can look back and compare ourselves to how we were doing a week, a month, a year ago.

Yet, as Hofbauer points out, this comparison does not always have the intended consequences. It doesn’t push us forward, motivating us to walk, earn, or sleep more. Often, it sets a standard off of which we judge ourselves. Leaving us disappointed if we don’t live up to whatever artificial standard we have set. We worry about hitting our quotas or whatever ever figure we define.

Sometimes, we become so wrapped up in the measure, that we lose sight of what’s actually important. The school who puts such an emphasis on passing the standardized tests, that it actively neglects students who score so low that they “have no chance” and those that are gifted enough, where there’s no worry over them passing. The benchmark (i.e. how many students pass the test) becomes the driver.

And that’s the downside of comparison. It pushes us towards aiming to improve a singular measure. Taking away the joy of running, learning, or working, because we feel like a failure if we don’t meet our expectations. It leaves us forcing our way to success–and all the anxiety that comes with taking such an approach.

And it constrains our performance. When we set a comparison point, whether its thanks to data or some other contrived expectations, we limit our chance of breakthrough. Instead of riding the wave of a magic performance, as Hofbauer did, we find ourselves constantly glancing down at the watch, seeing times that are well outside of our normal performance. And we’re left with the thought “This is too fast! I better slow down or else I’m going to pay the price.” And slow down we do.

— Steve

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