How to Measure Success: Should We Compare Ourselves to Others?

How do you define “success?”

Think about people in your life that you would consider successful as well as those that you would consider unsuccessful. In both instances, there are sure to be key characteristics that make them either one or the other. Some of Merriam Webster’s definitions of the word success are: “favorable or desired outcome” and “the attainment of wealth, favor, or eminence.”

Are these the traits you associate with your successful acquaintances? Do you compare yourself to these people? How does that make you feel?

These are the types of big questions we tend to ask ourselves at pivotal junctures of life. Whether going through a midlife crisis, a career change, a break up, or even a rise to prominence in some regard, these questions can make or break us. If you struggle with these questions, know that you’re not alone–this is perfectly natural.

In my own personal experience with this inner struggle with defining success, I’ve come to realize that life is what we make of it. There are some people who turn lemons into lemonade and others who maintain a sour persona throughout life. The key to overcoming these negative energies is to choose your comparisons and definition of success wisely.

Drawing Comparisons

Recently, I was reading the book 100 Simple Secrets of Happiness by Ph.D David Niven. Although incredibly concise anecdotes are sprinkled throughout the book, the messages are profound. There are some quotes on comparisons that really resonated with me that I would like to further examine.

“When we compare ourselves to those who have more, we feel bad. When we compare ourselves to those who have less, we feel grateful.”

We all do this. Off the top of your head, I’m sure you can rattle off people who fit into both categories. I’m not convinced that either side of the spectrum is particularly healthy. On one hand, seeing those who have more may be humbling, yet debilitating. In contrast, seeing people who have less might make us thankful, but it might also breed a sense of condescension towards others if done in excess. In order to rid ourselves of these comparisons, we need to dig deeper.

To be truly at peace with others, we must find peace within. Instead of focusing on the jealousy or joy derived from these comparisons, I believe that we need to diagnose each case. Consider why you feel one way or the other about people. In either instance, there is most likely an underlying insecurity that you are suppressing. Confront that insecurity by examining your own life. Are there things that you’re unhappy with and wish you had? Are there things about yourself that you feel that all people should have? Be brutally honest with yourself. By doing this, you will be able to live life more deliberately so that you can improve your shortcomings and help others share your blessings.

“Compare yourself with those examples that are meaningful, but that make you feel comfortable with who you are and what you have.”

We can learn something from every comparison we draw, but we need to make meaning of it. When we compare ourselves to those with less, we should focus more on the fact that we are fortunate to have so many great things in life whether material or otherwise, but we should not put that person down for having less.

When looking to people who have more, there are ways to appreciate the qualities of that person which enabled them to achieve those things that we covet. Rather than displaying envy, what if you asked them for help in attaining those things that you desire? Most people I’ve encountered are happy to pay it forward to others, you just need to ask. Simply by turning resentment into admiration, your entire outlook on life will change for the better.

How to Overcome a (Perceived) Lack of Success

In my own life, I’ve battled with depression and anxiety because of my lack of success in various endeavors. What allowed me to overcome these demons was the realization that success is all about perception. To further illustrate these points, I’ve provided a few profound lessons that have totally changed my outlook on success and life in general.

1. Be True to Yourself.

Two of my closest friends are in the technology space. Not only are they in that space, one has raised millions of dollars and built a highly profitable (dare I say successful) marketing company. The other was able to partner with a billionaire–you read that correctly, that’s billionaire with a b– to sell technologies and serve as a consultant. Seeing their achievements in the technology space, I followed suit. I created a social media platform for teachers, but even when I had some traction I hated every second of it. One day I had a breakdown and literally couldn’t take working on it anymore.

Due to this experience, I viewed myself as a failure for several years. Nothing I tried ever seemed to work, I was always stressed, and never happy. The reason nothing ever seemed to work is because I wasn’t being true to myself; I hate web design, I don’t really care about social media, and I’m not particularly interested in managing a tech company. Instead, what I’ve always enjoyed is writing, speaking, and helping others (teaching and course design). Now I’m doing all of those things on a regular basis and loving every second of it. No two paths are the same, choose your own.

2. Money Isn’t Everything.

Not too long ago, I went hiking with my best friend (one of the tech guys I mentioned). As we were climbing, we decided to rest at a point with a great view. I had been having a bad day and felt very unfulfilled. As a history teacher, I know that my occupation will ever give me financial freedom. The crazy part is that I was able to double my income to over six figures this year with real estate. However, I felt like it wasn’t enough and that I would never achieve the consistent level of financial success of my friend. I admired his success and asked him how he was able to consistently make more money. His reply was:

“What do you mean man? It doesn’t matter.”

My friend is the exact same person now as he was when we became friends in 4th grade. He’s very humble and I think that these 8 words encapsulate exactly why he’s been able to be so level-headed. At that point, I realized that my relationship with money had been misguided: I was looking for stature in society and wanted material items. That was how I defined success.

Now, I’ve come to the conclusion that money isn’t everything. There will always be someone with more, but who cares? I’m not saying you need to go all Monk Who Sold His Ferrari (great book by the way) and reject the niceties of life. What I am saying is that your life should still have meaning, money aside. To practice this, I’ve started thinking about the little things in life that require no money at all like spending time with loved ones and spending time in nature. Now that I’ve made this an active part of my life, I’m so much more fulfilled than I was chasing an illusion.

Money is a vehicle that enables you to have freedom and live comfortably, but it should not define you. Make sure that as you accumulate wealth, it is for genuine purposes, not to flaunt–this won’t last very long.

3. The Grass is Always Greener, Right?

A woman I used to date came from an affluent background. Her parents are multi-millionaires and some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. In my time getting to know her father in particular, he would teach me a lot about wealth accumulation such as investing in the stock market and real estate. One day, I happened to notice that he was dissatisfied with his house, an extremely nice one in one of the wealthiest towns in America. He was fixated on the fact that people on the other side of town had bigger houses and so he wanted a different one.

In his eyes, he wasn’t successful. Yet to me, he is one of the smartest, hard-working, and impressive people I’ve ever met. There will always be someone wealthier than you, someone smarter than you, someone better looking than you and so on. Why do we care so much about those other people?

Final Thoughts

The only person truly worth comparing yourself to is you. All that truly matters is that we are better than we were the day before. Look back at your life and think about all of the great things you’ve done and that you’re thankful for. Consider what you know now that you could’ve used earlier in life. Collectively analyze your life lessons and put them into use so that you can be healthier, wealthier, happier, and more loving than you were in the past. If you do that, you will always be a success.