There’s a certain tendency that some people have. If we were on a call together I’d be asking you some questions. Of course, since this is a blog, I won’t be able to hear your answers. What’s important is that you hear your answers. Decide whether you like your answer enough to hang onto it.
The first thing I want to do is take you back to a place before you were a dentist. A place when you were thinking about what your life as a dentist would be like. What were you most looking forward to? What did you think it would feel like to be a doctor? And now that you are one, how closely do things match what you thought?
As you’re thinking about your answers to those questions I want to introduce some of the aspects of comparison that enter our minds and our lives.
Comparing ourselves to ourselves is a common thing and it can be a bit of a grey area. There are times that comparing our growth or our production from one week to the next can be helpful to gauge where we’re at. What we’re doing well, and what we need to do differently. But then there’s this other facet of comparison to ourselves that isn’t useful. It’s where you take something you’ve done well or are capable of doing well and you use it as a weapon against a less productive. Or less successful experience.
You can feel the difference. Looking at last week and noticing that you created more of the results you prefer than you did this week is neutral. No matter what it is. But let’s take an example to illustrate it. Let’s say you’ve got a goal to do 100 pushups straight. Last week you did 50 straight and you noticed that this week your longest set was 45 pushups. Five less than what you did last week and less than half of your target set.
Look at the Math
Look at the math of it. You can do a little discovery on what may have been different on the 50 push-up week. Look at the contributing factors. Maybe it was diet. It may have been sleep. Or possibly workload. You can make a hypothesis on what you did well. and what you could do differently to get back to 50 and move closer to your goal of 100.
That number, 45, is neutral. The number from last week, 50 is neutral. The fact that 45 is less than 50 is also neutral. Looking at the data you have some options. If you need some help in the push-up arena, our oldest son recently finished a book on how to become proficient at push-ups! Workout to workout. Week to week, the number you get to, especially if you’re giving it your all, is neutral.
You can also take those neutral numbers and apply meaning to them. You can decide that you’re getting weaker. That you’re not ever going to be able to do 100 pushups straight. That you picked a bad time in your life for this goal. 50 is good enough because 100 is really pretty lofty and not really necessary. You could decide to quit doing pushups and go spend more time than you’d planned on something else that you feel more control over like electronics, shopping, eating, or drinking.
We do this.
We take things that don’t have anything underneath them (no hidden meanings) and we decide to make them a part of a story. A lot of times, the story is a familiar theme that keeps coming up. So if you’re used to telling yourself that you’re not strong, then the 45 pushups will turn into evidence that you’re not. If you tell yourself that you aren’t good at sticking to exercise routines, then the 45 push-ups become a convenient reason to quit working toward 100. If your common theme is that you’re not as good as the next person, then you’ll be acutely tuned into your friends and family when they talk about strength exercises and you’ll decide where your 45 pushups, 50 max so far, puts you in the workout hierarchy.
But 45, 50, 100, they’re really only numbers and they can be used to quantify good things. They can quality your efforts, your progress, or your path to achieving your goal. These numbers can be used to help you adjust, as needed.
Now I touched on this a moment ago, when I said that you may tune in to other people’s strengths and abilities. A huge thing that happens, and it happens a lot, with people in general, and it happens a lot in this industry is the comparing of each other. We compare ourselves to our peers, and we compare our peers to each other. And more often than not it’s unkind and critical. It offers little or no support for the person being deemed as the lesser, the less successful, the less experienced, the less popular, the less specialized, the less polished, the less whatever.
I don’t need to spell it out for you. You know what I’m talking about. Measuring yourself against other people, or measuring other people against each other, is not beneficial. It’s a tricky thing to catch because it can happen so naturally. We’re thinkers! We analyze! So we notice something and our brains automatically start figuring out where to put that information in some sort of hierarchical arrangement. We do this with how much money people have or seem to have, what things they buy, where and how often they travel, how good of a doctor we think they are or aren’t. All things that are first of all, neutral, and secondly not an indication of their worth as a person.
It’s a downer. Realize it or not, when you participate in comparing you’re weighing yourself down. You are preoccupied with what is often just a perception. It’s not necessarily the truth of a situation (like doing 45 pushups might just mean that it was a bit colder than last week, so really your body did more “work” than when you achieved 50). Whether or not your assessment is true, you are weighed down by the thought power being spent putting people, including and especially yourself, into a ranking system that has no real utility in your life.
If it does, help me understand. But if we were talking right now and I asked you to explain to me the value in your life of knowing the complete financial status of you and your 20 closest friends so we could see where each of you ranks in comparison to the others, how would you answer me? How would you explain how that knowledge is useful? Maybe it is to you. Or maybe it’s just fun to know. Or gives you a target to aim for. But oftentimes the categories we put people in, or the way we rank people isn’t conducive to the results we’re trying to achieve.
Enjoy Your Progress But Don’t Compare
And I’m not saying that achievements are to be some secret or shouldn’t be celebrated. I’m a huge fan of enjoying the process of working toward a goal and enjoying the arrival point. Comparison and the slippery slope you can find yourself heading down, spending time and energy in a way that doesn’t feel good, isn’t kind to yourself or your friends. It doesn’t get you closer to where and who you want to be.
So now let’s talk more about why our brains do this. Why is this happening? There are a couple of reasons and I want to talk about each. So you can solve for them as they show up.
The first I previously mentioned. That’s the brain’s tendency to organize information. Stimuli comes in, the brain figures out where to put it, makes connections to other pieces of similar information, and before you realize it you’ve made a comparison. You’ve drawn a conclusion about yourself or someone else in relation to yourself or someone else.
So if you notice that happening, simply acknowledge the thought and then direct your brain to do another activity. It will respond to your direction. That might literally sound like, “I noticed this about myself or another person (the acknowledgment), but now, brain, I want you to focus on how we can increase case acceptance this month (the redirection).” We all do this anyway, on probably a regular basis. We notice something that seems enticing and we redirect our minds to the things we really want to focus on. I’m suggesting that the brain has deemed ranking people and comparing people as “enticing” and that when you notice it happening that you redirect.
Another reason that people tend to compare a lot, especially people who are highly trained and experienced at making thorough assessments, is that by function, the brain latches onto or takes special note of anything new or different. It’s constantly scanning our environments looking for things that aren’t cookie-cut or as expected. It does this as a matter of protection. Because if there’s something dangerous, or unordinary that could cause you pain or trouble, it wants to identify the threat and get you to safety. A noble cause, for sure. And a helpful function, especially when you’re hiking the grand canyon or rafting white waters.
On a daily basis, this mechanism, this tendency, can fire off needlessly. You’re at lunch with a friend who works in your community, maybe even someone who works at your practice, and he mentions his production last month. By default, the brain is going to do the things we just talked about. It’s going to organize the information, put it in a rank, and undoubtedly compare your production last month to his. Then it’s going to determine the level of threat that this other doctor is.
I want to pause here. Because this is a spot where there usually seems to be some needless and lingering discomfort with some people. So let me ask you, Is another doctor’s performance a threat to you?
There’s no wrong answer here. There are many different ways to look at what I’m asking. But really think about how you’d process information about a peer producing more than you.
The information alone, or the fact that he had a higher production month is not a threat to you. It’s a fact and simply a set of two numbers. Yours and his. Now, what you do with this information will drastically impact your energy and resourcefulness in handling it.
You could spend a bunch of time thinking about his numbers versus yours, figure out where other people landed last month, what people at other practices are producing, put all of these things in ranking order, and decide that it means something about you, your potential, and your likelihood to reach your goals.
You could take this information, notice that his last month was higher than yours, and decide where you want to redirect your mind. I’m just throwing out options here, but if you’re working for the same practice or in the same community you might consider picking his brain about what he’s doing to see if there’s an area of improvement for you. You might direct your mind to think of ways you can increase your production this month, using his last month as evidence that it’s possible for you to improve. There are just so many ways you can use the information that isn’t comparison-driven but enriching for you.
My recommendation when it comes to comparison is that you consciously shift from comparing to enriching.
The last thing that I want to mention in regard to brain function and a tendency to compare, is habit. Patterned neural pathways. Brain programming is one of my passions and in studying it over the years I’ve learned a lot about the subconscious defaults we program into our own minds. One of those is a knee-jerk reaction to size people up against each other. We’re a competitive community, so sometimes this patterning, this default way of thinking about people and information is something we’ve been doing for a long time. It may have served us well in some situations, but in general, as a matter of emotional intelligence, the type of comparisons we’ve been discussing today aren’t ones that maximize growth or potential. I suggest that they set us back in big ways!!
But here’s the good news. Patterns and habits are made up of repeated occurrences. Once you realize that you have a tendency to do something or respond some way that isn’t aligned with who you want to be you can solve for it. You’ll know which things don’t align because when you engage in that sort of behavior it’ll stand out to you. It won’t feel good even if it provides some temporary (and I’m gonna suggest “false”) elevation. Sift for those things so you can decide what to do with them.
You can approach a change in the ways that are the best fitting for you. Some options are interrupting the pattern. Noticing that it’s happening and stopping yourself from completing the process. So you’re sitting with a friend and you notice that you’re comparing people and you stop. You change the subject. You redirect the conversation. Something that requires your mind to deviate from the established pattern of participating in comparison.
Create a new pattern. Now that you’re aware you have this tendency, establish a way that you want to respond differently. And it’ll take practice, but it definitely can be done. Maybe you decide that when you notice yourself start to put people into categories, or however comparison shows up for you, that you’re going to stand up and hop of one foot. Or you’re gonna mention three amazing qualities about that person or group. Or that you’re going to identify a good quality that you and the person or group you’re currently comparing share. It’s your new pattern, make it what you want.
Do something with your newfound awareness because you want to and because it feels good. It feels good to uplift yourself and others, it feels good to exercise restraint when it would be easy to pick someone or something apart, and it feels good to advance to a level of emotional responsibility where it’s no longer a restraint to choose not to participate in behaviors that used to be habitual. This is growth and evolvement.
The final thing that I want to say about all of this is to be mindful. Especially at first. Be mindful of ideas your mind might offer you that are sneaky ways to go from one habit of comparison to another. And here’s what I mean. If you frequently compare people based on (and I’m just going to pick something and let you fill in the blank with where you’re comparing) but let’s say you have a lot of thoughts about the way they dress.
You’re now changing that pattern. You’re onto it, you’re making an effort to notice it when it shows up, and you’re interrupting it or redirecting it. You might find that you’re tempted to judge people who still critique other people’s clothing. Or maybe you notice yourself thinking about how great you are now compared to how you used to handle some things in regard to noticing people’s clothes.
These aren’t the essence of what I’m teaching. Other people, lots of other people, are going to continue comparing themselves and other people. For their whole lives! You leveling up in this area, you choosing to take some ownership over where you spend your thought power and how you direct your energy is about yourself. The incredible and wonderful benefit of you advancing to a more emotionally mature plane is that everyone around you, your family, your friends, your team, your patient, everyone benefits from being around a person who has obtained and exercises advanced emotional responsibility.
So to end like we began, with questions, I want to ask. Who does a change in patterned responses need to start with? And who is the only person that can sustain changes for you?