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We live in a world of immense competition. Anything you’re doing, no matter how you measure it, is likely being bested by thousands of people. Maybe you wrote a book. It may have brilliant insights and a few terrific reader reviews. But, on Amazon it ranks 4,824th in its category. One time I checked my own book’s ranking on Amazon. One word. ☹. Stuff like that has a way of dampening your sense of accomplishment!
There is a minefield of depressing evidence that we are failures. The parade of metrics beside which we are ranked, judged, reviewed or “liked” can feel as though the path to success is Sisyphean.
If you were born within the last 40 years someone likely said that you could become an NBA star, or the first person to land on Mars, become the “It Girl” or found the next Apple. While these are all possible, none is likely. In fact, from a plausibility perspective, those were lies. There are over 330 million people in this country and over 8 billion people on the planet. While you stand better odds for global success than a nomad living in East Sudan, the odds are still stacked against you.
Yet, we are all striving to be excellent and to develop ourselves into the most exceptional practitioners or writers, engineers, CEOs or whatever. But it’s easy to feel like a failure when compared to the massive successes we aspire to be. Of all the people with genuine aspirations –and of all the people on the planet — only 604,174 warrant a mention on Wikipedia. And even though you haven’t heard of many of those 604,174, they are at least sort of famous. But here’s the rub. They constitute just 0.0086 percent of the world.
Psychologist Leon Festinger was the first to describe our tendency to evaluate ourselves in this way. In his 1954 book he suggested that when we are given the opportunity, we will use others as the ruler against which to rate our own performance. Of course, he had no idea how many such opportunities we would soon have! Festinger described it first, but the phenomenon isn’t new. It’s always been possible to view one’s own accomplishments stacked against others’. Imagine how daunting it might have been for upstart inventors while Thomas Edison was alive. He filed 2,332 patents in his lifetime and was a global phenom. The guy who invented the fourth iteration of the lightbulb must have felt like a loser –despite being only the fourth EVER in the world to craft such a magical object.
Moreover, we have an added complication that the lightbulb guy didn’t. Today, everyone is expected to be a “brand”. Thank Tom Peters for that! Seeing yourself as a brand, and then being confronted by innumerable other brands and the universe of ratings, likes and other metrics and suddenly the stakes seem insurmountably high. Someone is always better. Not just a little better – a LOT better. You have a podcast? Well, if Malcolm Gladwell released a new episode it likely got more than 36,000 downloads. Yours?
Perhaps you have some methods to reduce any sense of inferiority. But most people are struggling with that. Some people try to convince themselves that their imagined competition have had it easier, or, that they have less talent and are overrated. Maybe that’s true. But the key point is that they are imaginary competition. You may be competing with them. But, they are not competing with you.
And that points us toward the truly effective strategies to empower yourself, and leave you feeling successful rather than like less of a failure.
These are not foolproof. Changing mindsets is tough. But assuming you are a hard worker (which you are), here is the best of what research has to offer about feeling more successful despite being virtually stalked by masters of the universe.
Change leagues: When your child scores a home run in little league, it IS a home run. It isn’t less of a home run because he was playing other 8-year-olds and not the Yankees. Choose your own league. The entire world or Google or YouTube is not a league. Without clear boundaries, there is no one you consider too big for your mind to make a personal comparison. So, create a boundary and make that your league. Maybe it’s your town, your professional association, or the Baptist churches in Pittsburgh. Limit the scope and use that as the league in which to grow, climb, compete and win.
Create individual metrics: The temptation is to look at your ranking on Amazon, YouTube or wherever. Don’t. You can automate the collection of that as data just as you can with your Google ranking. That’s fine, but only as progress tracking, not your governing metric. Create new metrics that are truly “S.M.A.R.T. goals. That is: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. For more on S.M.A.R.T. Goals, look it up. Then, create goals that fit these criteria rather than the ones given you by the Interwebs.
You are becoming: Your work is a verb not a noun. Instead of looking to your performance as a final product, consider yourself to be in training. A work in progress. Every new article moves you closer to becoming a great writer. Every new launch is progress toward the Unicorn app. And every mile run is your body growing stronger. Becoming, not a final product.
Measure you against you: Track progress over time rather than against a global standard bearer. The standard bearer for your progress is your SMART goals or strategy. That’s it. If the needle is moving you closer to your goal –and your goal is attainable, not global – you will experience the satisfaction of a great job. That’s the pay off. Satisfaction. Progress.
This approach can also make you money. Yes, less than Jeff Bezos. But more than you last year!