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Category: Step Out



Do you think you’re better than me? Do you make more money? Are you richer? Are you happier? Are you smarter? Are you taller? Are you thinner? Are you stronger? Can you beat me up? Can you have me fired? Can you banish me? Can you kill me and eat my liver?

Taller, stronger, richer, cooler, more talented, more handsome, more famous, more SuperBowl rings, nicer…but Joe Montana isn’t as good at writing science fiction as me…as far as you know.

Do you think I’m better than you?

This matters. Not how we compare objectively but how we think about comparisons.

As I have said before, human psychology was designed by a toddler and a caveman working in the dark using a sledgehammer, a knitting needle and wad of chewing gum.

For most of human history (the first 300,000 years at least) our main worry was being killed and eaten (not necessarily in that order) closely followed by being kicked out of the tribe and then being killed and eaten after starving. All our modern anxieties devolve to these two fears in the dark recesses of our minds (or, to put it more scientifically, in our amygdala).

We overreact to non-existential threats (like people who disagree with us on facebook) because when our ancestors were evolving there were no non-existential threats. That which didn’t kill us didn’t make us stronger, it just waited until the sun went down and tried again. All of our ancestors had one thing in common. They survived long enough to have kids.

That’s why we pay attention to bad news and ignore the good. Why pay attention to good news? It’s not going to kill us?

Humans survived by working together. A group of humans could fight off a cave bear or a sabre-toothed cat. Humans working together got so good at Mammoth hunting that we killed them all off before we even had iron weapons. On the other hand, an individual human could be easily killed by just about anything with sharp teeth or a bad attitude.

That’s why it’s so important, from the amygdala’s point of view, that we fit in. Part of fitting in is being aware of our place in the social hierarchy. That’s why we pay attention to how we compare to others and why coming up short causes such anxiety and anguish.

The caveman inside us is afraid of getting ostracized.

If you can identify when anxiety and anguish is caused by comparisons, then you can let it go. There is no reason to be jealous of anyone else or to be threatened by someone else’s success. All that stress is not helpful and it’s not good for you.

This is an old problem but social media has amplified it. Depression is often caused by social media addiction precisely because of this kind of stress.

A wise old 12 step saying is “don’t compare your insides to another’s outsides.” A modern equivalent might be “don’t compare your humble assessment of your life to another’s humble brag on facebook.”

Keep up the good work.