Comparison leads to slowed growth and mental distress; purpose within boundaries leads to long-term growth and a positive mindset. The differences are subtle, and so it can be easy to slip into comparison mode. Let’s talk about how to structure your business and set goals to promote purpose, leading to overall happiness and success as defined by what makes you feel joy.
We started Interact in college, and after it was up and running, we used it as part of a class project. Everyone in the class thought it was the coolest thing ever because it actually existed; whereas, all the other proposed projects hadn’t been built yet and so weren’t as appealing.
One of those projects—which no one in the class wanted to work on—went on to become a $100 million company, which, when sold, pretty much set the founders up for life. Meanwhile, while Interact is no slouch, we’re continuing on a slower—but steady—pace of growth.
How comparison plays out
- I feel good about what we’re working on, confident in our decisions and directions.
- I catch wind of what someone else is doing . . .
- Then I look into what they’re doing, and I feel afraid that we’re doing things wrong.
- Next, I go down a rabbit hole, finding even more companies doing “better” than we are.
- I feel really bad about what we’re doing and lose confidence in our decisions and direction.
- I just spent a day in comparison mode, not working on anything.
The mental effects of comparison
- A research study on how social media effects our mental health found that when we’re constantly exposed to comparisons without a way of bettering ourselves, it leads to anxiety and depression.
- Comparison distracts people from doing their work. When we are fully engaged in our work—AKA the “flow state”—it leads to all sorts of positive outcomes, like increased happiness and resilience to stress. When we spend time comparing ourselves to others, it keeps us from putting energy toward work that will make us happy.
- If you are actively looking for a reason to classify yourself as a failure, you will always find one. If you make $100,000, you can find someone who makes $1 million. This cycle will never end. I mean, look at the world’s richest and most successful people: they’re still trying to outdo each other. There’s no winning this game.
Comparison vs. benchmarking
In business, it’s important to know how you’re doing; you can’t improve what you can’t measure, after all. And so, benchmarking (a form of comparison) is essential for growth. I see this almost like learning from history, seeing what others have done and baking that into your strategy.
“Benchmarking is the process of measuring key business metrics and practices and comparing them—within business areas or against a competitor, industry peers, or other companies around the world—to understand how and where the organization needs to change in order to improve performance.” —APQC
Setting goals with positive benefits
Once you know roughly what the benchmarks are and where you’re at in your business, it’s time to set goals. Some goals help your brain, while others hurt your brain. For example, generic goals, like “I want to be the best,” are detrimental to your health.
“We found that the goals that people with clinical depression listed lacked a specific focus, making it more difficult to achieve them and therefore creating a downward cycle of negative thoughts.” —The Best Brain Possible
Oppositely, specific goals can be very beneficial to your health. For example: “We want to grow by 20% next year.”
“People who could identify a goal they were pursuing were 19 percent more likely to feel satisfied with their lives and 26 percent more likely to feel positive about themselves.” —David Niven, 100 Simple Secrets of the Best Half of Life
Believing you can improve
You’ve probably heard the terms “growth mindset” and “fixed mindset”; they are popular concepts in mental health communities. Researcher Carol Dweck studies the effects of believing you can improve and believing you can reach the goals you set for yourself. She’s found that simply believing you can grow leads to growth (simple yet profound).
However, believing you are dumb—or even believing you are smart—leads to stagnation because you’re more worried about where you fit in the hierarchy of dumb to stupid than you are about actually bettering yourself.
Nurturing a sense of purpose
The final piece of the puzzle is having a sense of purpose—“the why,” as it’s popularly called. Numerous research studies have shown the positive effects of having “a why.” For example, at Interact, we really care about helping people find autonomy, helping them figure out what makes them excited to work every day—both for our team and our customers.
When things get hard, growth slows, or we aren’t reaching our goals, we can always fall back on that sense of purpose and know that we are achieving it, even if we fall short of our goals.
Having a sense of purpose brings lifelong benefits, Burrow explains. He points to research by others that has shown that purposeful people actually tend to live longer and are less sick. “The findings are mind-blowing,” he says. —Cornell Research
Conclusion: choose purpose
Comparing ourselves to others is only natural. But in our experience at Interact and in the real-life circumstances of seeing people surpass us in every metric you can think of, we’ve realized that comparison is an endless game that leads to mental sadness.
But looking at benchmarks, setting specific business goals, believing you can improve over time, and nurturing your sense of purpose leads to increased happiness, overall growth, and, ultimately, fulfilling the purpose you set out to achieve.