We’re told to aim high, to achieve.
We set out into the world with lofty goals and work diligently towards achieving them.
Our confidence and self-esteem grows with every milestone we reach.
But the line between self-esteem and self-righteousness can be a fine one. It is easy to develop an inflated sense of self with each passing achievement.
This is why the Stoics warned against the applause of the crowd. “The emptiness of those applauding hands. The people who praise us; how capricious they are, how arbitrary”, wrote Roman philosopher king, Marcus Aurelius.
Identifying too closely with external validation renders one’s internal compass broken, for you are no longer aspiring to live in accordance with your values, but in accordance with what will temporarily secure the admiration of the crowd.
And with the applause of the crowd, inevitably, comes comparing others unfavourably with yourself.
And this is dangerous.
As Timothy Clark writes in The Four Stages of Psychological Safety, when you compare and compete, you lose the ability to connect.
You’re no longer seeing the other person as an equal, but as inferior.
This is further amplified by a cognitive bias we all hold called the fundamental attribution error — if someone else fails we think it’s because of their character, but if we fail it’s because of our circumstances.
Many high achievers I know struggle with this.
I’ve struggled with it.
I’m ashamed to say that I have found myself doing so, consciously or otherwise, with friends and even with romantic partners, and in both cases, the outcomes were far from positive — distancing from friends, either on their part or my own, as well as not just the breakdown of romantic relationships, but pain and suffering caused for people that I supposedly cared about and was supposed to provide moral and emotional support to.
I found myself unable to understand why said person didn’t work out religiously, or didn’t invest the same kind of energy into their career, or didn’t read as many books as I did — all petty reasons really.
And for all of my reading of books, especially on philosophy and emotional intelligence, I was still a sh*t person.
But here’s the thing, life exists across dimensions.
As a human being, your worth isn’t measured just by how many zeroes you have in your bank account, or degrees nailed to the wall of your study.
You are measured by so much more.
The way you live your life.
Larry King is one of the most decorated media personalities of all time but even he has been married eight times — twice to the same woman.
Success in one dimension doesn’t make you successful across all.
You might excel at some things, but you don’t excel at everything.
Similarly, the people you’re judging no doubt excel at some things too— you’re just not seeing them, or creating the space to see them.
Rather than letting your negativity bias hone in one what people aren’t good at, perhaps take the time to find out and hone in on what they are instead? For starters, perhaps the people you’re looking down on are less judgmental than you, a virtue in and of itself.
As scientist communicator Bill Nye said, “Everyone you meet can teach you something you don’t know.”
Take a step back yourself. You might be doing well in your own little community or bubble, but compared with a larger pool of people from all over the world, are you still all that impressive? Sure, a 7-figure business is nice, but how does it compare to 8, 9 or 10-figure founders?
While I’ve personally found some success in the entrepreneurship and authorship domains, I’m no Jack Dorsey or Ryan Holiday. There are almost always bigger fish to compare yourself to, in order to keep your feet planted on the ground.
Mental-conditioning coach to NFL stars such as Russell Wilson, Trevor Moawad, says that the man on top of the mountain didn’t fall there, he had to climb.
You might be a published author, or a profit-generating entrepreneur, or an accomplished athlete today, but remember the difficulty on your way up? The person you’re judging is also on their own road and facing their own challenges, just like you were.
While you take stock of how far you’ve come, don’t not lose sight of how far you have left to go.
Hone in on your own weaknesses and areas for improvement, in order to stay grounded and humble.
If you don’t know what your weaknesses are, chances are you’re either sticking to your comfort zone, not being objective or an egomaniac.
The antidote to this is to try new activities that you will inevitably suck at initially, and seek out anonymous feedback from people who know you — whether that be colleagues of friends — “what could I be doing better?”
As Marcus Aurelius said, tolerate or teach.
Rather than judging, is there a way you can offer support to help the other person level up their game? There’s a reason why the very top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is self-transcendence — we are born to serve each other.
At the very least, tolerate people for who they are.
As Robert Sapolsky notes in Behave: The Science of Human Behavior, we all have our own biological predispositions, our own unique upbringing and past experiences that shape us — almost all of which is outside our control and can hardly be used against against us. People have their own stories, and own reason for being where and who they are.
Instead of comparing just CVs, how about comparing prospective eulogies too? Don’t forget that there is a person on the other side, not just a business card.
And when all else fails, revert to the golden rule — treat others as you would like to be treated.
Steve Glaveski is on a mission to unlock your potential to do your best work and live your best life. He is the founder of innovation accelerator, Collective Campus, author of several books, including Employee to Entrepreneur and Time Rich, and productivity contributor for Harvard Business Review. He’s a chronic autodidact and is into everything from 80s metal and high-intensity workouts to attempting to surf and hold a warrior three pose.