Which of these scenarios makes you feel better about yourself: You’re at a bar with A) your uber-attractive, date-bait friend whose mere presence ignites a firestorm of sexual interest, or B) the friend who might as well be a beer-lacquered bar stool in the eyes of potential suitors?
You are totally lying if you said A.
Being around people who do better than us – whether it’s at scoring numbers on the social scene, answering questions correctly in orgo, or having futures laid out in organized little lists (ha, what a ruse) – can make us feel like total crap. Yet we continue to hang around these people. And, more importantly, to compare ourselves to them. (BTW: this never ends. The 30s redux are uber-parents who present organic snacks in fabric pouches and sew their own cloth diapers. I tell you, after a toddler playdate I think my life is in such shambles that Lindsey Lohan’s looks good in comparison.)
Why do we do this to ourselves?
Because we’re hard-wired to. Social comparisons enable us to see ourselves and to understand the value of our abilities. This is necessary and can be helpful, especially when there aren’t any objective criteria available. How else could we know if we’re a worthwhile friend or a talented writer or a good singer ? (RE: the latter – you’re not. Hasn’t American Idol taught you anything?)
The thing is that doing too much social comparing, especially in one direction, can drive us to drink, as my dad likes to say. The comparisons that tell us how badly we’re doing relative to someone else – “upward comparisons” – do have some pluses: they can make us feel like we’re part of an elite group (e.g., if I’m comparing myself to Beyonce, I must be doing something right) and they can make us want to try harder. But they can also make us feel downright cruddy.
Thing is, I feel like a total schmuck when I make downward comparisons. For instance, I’m in the children’s library the other day and there’s a young mom feeding her 1-year-old Gatorade out of a bottle and Doritos. Then she throws a puzzle (that my 2-year-old can’t yet do) at her daughter’s feet and proclaims, “She’s so lazy. She doesn’t even try.” That would have been a perfect scenario for me to make a downward comparison or two. But how crappy would it be to look at that scenario and think, Wow, I am a good mom! Go me! Ugh.
You Millennials seem to have the same hesitancy. For all the talk about your generation’s narcissism, I find you to be loathe to make downward comparisons. Oh sure, you’ll cut someone down for a bad choice (Can you believe she’s wearing those boots with those pants?). In a heartbeat. But you’re also super-attuned to social and economic disparities and you don’t seize on others’ unfortunate circumstances as an opportunity to feel good about yourselves.
Which means that you’re left making a ton of upward comparisons and very few downward comparisons. No wonder you guys feel like you’re always failing.
Especially since failure hinges on social comparison.
Worse yet, while there is no absolute standard for failure (even the “absolutes” that do exist – like the average score on an IQ test – are actually constantly shifting), we continually talk about failure in absolute terms. Common phrases heard in my office: “I totally failed at that interview I went to.” Or “I’m really failing in my stats class” (by which the student means getting a C). Or, most disheartening of all, “I’m failing at everything I try.”
This is stupid talk. We don’t go around saying things like, “That building is taller” or “That guy’s pecs are bigger” or “Donald Trump’s hair is scarier.” They’re meaningless statements. (Well maybe not that last one.) We were taught in the first grade to state comparisons when we use “-er” words.
The problem with failure, then, isn’t that it’s based on social comparisons, it’s that we don’t acknowledge those comparisons. We act like failure is a state of being that has no referent when in actuality it has “comparison” smeared all over it.
Put this all together, and you get Millennial Failure Pie (MFP): You’re making tons of upward comparisons, not balancing them with downward comparisons, and doing it all unconsciously. Disaster.
There are probably a million things we could do to try to address the MFP. But how about starting here: changing the way we think and talk about failure.
- Failed compared to who? For instance: “I failed at that interview.” Meaningless. “I failed at that interview compared to the person who got the job.” True. “I failed at that interview compared to the person who walked into the interview room hammered, vomited on his shoes, and then fainted.” Actually, there you kicked some butt.
- Is the comparison reasonable? For instance: I failed the SAT compared to my cousin who got a perfect score. Twice. (Yes, really.) But who didn’t?
If we thought and talked about failure in this way, it might unconsciously activate some of the downward comparisons that we need to make in order to stay psychologically healthy. And we wouldn’t feel like callous, pompous pricks while we’re doing it.
Then maybe we could hang out with our gorgeous BFF, our I-could-calculate-the-molecular-weight-of-plutonium-without-trying classmate, and our has-it-all-together friend and not feel as crappy as Taylor Swift’s latest ex. We’ll just feel like us. Which is more than enough.