“Compared with what?” On self image and personal expectations

Economist Julian Simon wrote a very insightful and largely forgotten work about human psychology. One of his main ideas was that humans tend to compare themselves to others.

The subject is always the self, the object of comparison can take many forms.

Typical objects are peers and contemporaries. But we can also compare ourselves to more extraordinary, outlier types. We can even compare ourselves to superheroes or the supernatural.

But it essentially boils down to comparing “what we think we are” to “what we’d like to be.”

He described these two factors as a numerator and a denominator:

Our sense of self
What we want to be

If your numerator is too small you won’t feel good.

If your denominator is too large, you won’t feel good.

So, clearly, if you want to feel good, you either have to boost your numerator, minimize your denominator, or make a major shift (by changing what the denominator is entirely).

I posit that we often want to minimize the denominator and that this is probably not the best course of action. That’s why we always complain about the world and other people. We’re always looking for bad guys to bad mouth, because that makes us feel better by comparison.

Plenty of people try to boost the numerator. Thats why there’s such a strong emphasis on promoting the self esteem of young people. It’s also the reason why so many people feel benefits from positive self affirmations (“I’m good enough…”). But it’s also why 90% of us think we’re above average.

For example, let’s say you tend to be a perfectionist. That means your expectation for yourself requires perfect results. That’s like having a denominator of infinity. You will always fail to live up to that standard and you will not feel good. And the only way to proceed with any chance of a good feeling with that kind of denominator is to have a numerator of infinity (which is to say, having a grandiose view of oneself—think Kayne West).

That doesn’t work because we need to have a realistic sense of self and a realistic sense of what we can be. We intuitively know when we’re trying to believe something that we know isn’t true. So an unrealistic self image cannot sustain for an extended period of time.

I think the best courses of action are either (1) stop comparing altogether or (2) changing what the denominator is.

I think (1) is probably too difficult for most of us to achieve. It’s a worthwhile goal, but it seems like only the rare Zen masters can continually think this way.

I think (2) is a good choice. So that requires thinking about “what should the denominator be? What should it look like? What’s the optimal denominator?”

One answer, interestingly enough, comes from Matthew McConaughey. I think I just heard you gasp, so bear with me here. Look at the transcript from his 2014 Academy Awards speech:

When I was 15 years old, I had an important person in my life come to me and say, ‘Who is your hero?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know. I gotta think about that. Give me a couple weeks.’ I come back two weeks later and this person comes up, ‘Who’s your hero?’ I said, ‘I thought about it, you know who it is? It’s me in 10 years,'” McConaughey said. “So I turn 25, 10 years later, and that same person comes to me and says, ‘So, are you a hero?’ And I say, ‘Not even close. No, no, no. My hero is me at 35.'”

This fits precisely with how the brain responds to rewards. We need to set goals that require effort from us, but at the same time, those goals have to be achievable so that we can get the satisfaction from actual accomplishment.

In other words, you should compare yourself to a slightly better version of yourself—one that, with some effort, you can become.

So stop comparing yourself to other people. And stop comparing yourself to vague things that you haven’t specifically described.

Instead, specifically describe a version of you that’s a bit better (but not outlandishly better) than your current state.

Then work to narrow the gap. And then move the goal posts and do it again.