“DO YOU EVEN CARE ABOUT THIS GAME?!”
I was watching my 2nd grader play in his basketball game recently. If you’ve never seen one, 2nd grade boys basketball games more closely resemble rugby scrums than actual basketball. Usually there are one or two players who can dribble and shoot well enough to dominate the game, and the other 7-8 players on the court run around like blind chickens.
Statistically speaking, your child is far more likely to be one of the blind chickens at this age than one of the dominant players. 8-year-old’s aren’t exactly LeBron James. But that doesn’t stop some parents from expecting as much.
As I sat among the parents and watched this particular game, I couldn’t help but notice the coach and several parents from the opposing team. The coach would scream at the players to “Get in position!” or “Rebound!” or “Stop turning the ball over!” He was far more intense than seemed appropriate for the kids’ age. But one of the dad’s was especially obnoxious and borderline verbally abusive toward his son. Late in the game, the man’s son went to the free throw line. He air-balled the first shot and didn’t come much closer on the second. The dad stood up in the stands and shouted, “Are you kidding me?! Do you even care about this game?!” When the game ended he yanked his son by the arm and stormed out to the car, shouting at him the whole way.
If you have ever experienced youth sports, you’ve no doubt witnessed something similar. Parents take the games far more seriously than their kids. I think these parents are so intense because they want their son or daughter to stand out, to be exceptional, to be better than everyone else on the court. It becomes a comparison game. Each parent compares their kid to the others on the floor without considering whether or not their kid is actually good, how often they practice, how long they’ve been playing, etc.
Comparison sucks the fun out of games for kids, and it sucks the fun out of life for all of us.
COMPARISON IS THE THEIF OF JOY
It’s been said that comparison is the thief of all joy. It’s hard to argue against that point because when we compare ourselves and long for what we don’t have, we instantly lose the ability to be content with what we do have. Happiness, after all, is not found in the conditions or circumstances of our lives, but in our response to those conditions and circumstances. In fact, it’s been shown that our capacity for happiness, joy, and contentment rests heavily on how we respond to what life throws at us.
Researcher David Lykken published a paper in 1996 that examined the role of genetics in determining our sense of satisfaction in life. His research looked into the lives of 4,000 sets of twins and analyzed the data taken from both fraternal and identical twin sets. He concluded that about 50% of our capacity for happiness is inherited in our DNA, while another 10% is based on the cultural setting in which we live. The other 40% is up to us. Not only is it up to us, but that 40% is capable of responding to the other 60%. So even if you are born with a naturally pessimistic demeanor, and your life is filled with stress and chaos, you are still capable of training yourself to respond in such a way that brings peace and contentment in life.
As a physician or dentist, it might be tempting to allow your circumstances - or 10% of your happiness - to negatively affect everything else in your life. It’s easy to look at those further up the career path from you who earn a higher income, live in a bigger house, and have acquired more prestige for their work and feel inadequate or less successful than they are. The tendency to compare our current situation with the situation of others is deeply embedded in our minds and can be difficult to escape. We buy into the myth that success is measured in net worth, recognition, and square footage of our houses. Even though our circumstances only affect 10% of our happiness, it can often feel like much, much more.
ONE WAY TO AVOID THE COMPARISON TRAP
So, how do we avoid the comparison trap? There are lots of ideas out there, and here’s one that always works for me. It’s one simple question:
There are roughly 7.53 billion people in the world.
If you had to guess, how many of those people would gladly trade places with you right now?
When it comes to comparing our lives with the lives of others, we almost always look up the social and economic ladder. Rarely do we look down. But for everyone at whom you’re looking up, there are literally millions of people looking up at you.
For perspective, here are a few common statistics about the lifestyles of billions of people in the world:
Of the world’s 7.53 billion people, 3 billion live on less than $2.50 per day, or about $900 per year.
Approximately 1.2 billion people live with no electricity.
There are approximately 1 billion cars in the world. If every car had only 1 driver, that would mean only 16.4% of the world’s adult population has access to a car.
805 million people in the world lack access to adequate food.
Preventable sickness like diarrhea and pneumonia kill as many as 2 million children per year because they cannot afford proper treatment.
I would guess that if you have electricity in your house, at least 1.2 billion people would gladly trade places with you this second. When we pause and look at our lives with this expanded perspective, it gives us a better sense of where we fall in terms of financial, material, and professional success. Maybe you don’t have all the accouterments of some of your colleagues, but when you flip a switch in your house the lights come on, and that’s a big deal.
No, money isn’t everything, but it provides a very comfortable lifestyle that we often take for granted, especially when we only think about what we don’t have rather than all the things we do have. There’s no doubt that you experience stress, frustration, and the occasional relationship struggle. Everybody does. But consider how fortunate you are to even have adequate housing, electricity, access to food, transportation, and healthcare. Perhaps it would be beneficial to spend a moment giving thanks for the comforts of life you enjoy and give perspective to the things that bring you down.
Perspective can also be found in a healthy definition of success.
Much like the angry dad at the basketball game, we often lack this. Net worth and material possessions are easy markers of success because they’re tangible. But if money is how you measure the value of your life, you’ll find that there’s always more money to earn. There’s always more stuff to buy. There’s always a bigger house you can build. Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, recently confessed to an extramarital affair. Even the man with the most money found something else he wanted. Joy and contentment will perpetually elude you as long as money or material possessions are your standard for success.
One of my favorite books is Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. It chronicles his life from a young boy in the Transkei in South Africa to his early days as a lawyer and onto his life as a freedom fighter and political prisoner. Near the end of the book, though, he writes the shocking confession that all he really wants to be remembered for is being a family man. He lost decades of his life with his family, was divorced twice, and had strained relationships with some of his children. Once he left the political spotlight, he dedicated himself to the simple life of being a husband, father, and grandfather. That, for Nelson Mandela, was the measure of success.
What will yours be? You don’t have to wait until you’re an old man or old woman to start living into what you consider success. Whether it’s doing good work in the world, fighting injustice, serving the needy, or, like Nelson Mandela, being there for your family, prioritize what matters now, and be at peace.