When I joined the Harvard Business School faculty, I received cards and letters from friends and family congratulating me on achieving one of the ultimate brass rings of academics. I felt pretty good about myself until I visited my assigned office in Morgan Hall. In an adjacent office was a colleague who had written something like 12 books and was an internationally recognized scholar in the area of organizational innovation. He had a beautiful summer house near Cape Cod. In addition, he was gracious and supportive. There wasn’t much to dislike.

So every day I came to work and walked past his office door, I felt like I was behind in the race. Compared with my colleague, I had accomplished so little over such a long career; my two measly books were more like an embarrassment, given his output. When I passed his office and he wasn’t there, I was sure that he was meeting with Jack Welch or someone famous. And as much as I wanted to dislike him, I found myself disliking me because of what he had done and what I had not accomplished. Mind you, this happened almost every day. And it didn’t happen at the end of the day but at the beginning. I’m sure you are asking why I didn’t just walk to my office the other direction so I didn’t have to begin the process of comparing? Because the situation on the other side was worse.

Two years earlier, in the mid-nineties, an MIT professor had joined the Harvard Business School faculty and one year later won the Nobel Prize in economics. Robert Merton was 46 when he won the award. He and two other economists created the trading process called Black-Scholes that impacted the ways financial markets were informed and influenced.

You see the problem. Merton had the office on the other side of my office. Bob Merton was as gracious and supportive as the colleague I mentioned earlier. When I saw him driving to work, I would bristle. He would often wave; I couldn’t figure out how someone that smart could be so gracious. So there you have it. There was no way for me to get to my office without a feeling of comparative inadequacy.

Comparing is a trap that permeates our lives, especially if we’re high-need-for-achievement professionals. No matter how successful we are and how many goals we achieve, this trap causes us to recalibrate our accomplishments and reset the bar for how we define success. What we’ve done in the past doesn’t matter; real success or achievement requires something more — a title we’ve never held, a task we’ve never done, a company we’ve never worked for. The process of comparing requires us to keep making our target more difficult to hit. And if we manage to hit this difficult target, we simply create an even more difficult one at which we can aim. No matter how much we achieve, we are never satisfied with our achievements when we’re caught in the comparing trap. I would urge you to find your own measure for providing a constant reminder that you’re on track (or not) and help you avoid falling into the comparing behavior trap. Consider the following measures:

  1. Capstone progress: Chart your progress toward your ideal position, determining if you’re acquiring the experiences and expertise that make you a viable candidate for that position.
  2. Satisfaction index: Keep track of how meaningful and fulfilling your work is; create a numerical satisfaction scale that depends on how much you’re enjoying what you do and how purposeful it seems; take a reading regularly.
  3. Learning level: Assess the knowledge and skills you’re acquiring and whether you’re becoming an “expert” in any one area (this is a more subtle measure, but it still can serve as a viable alternative to comparing behaviors).

It’s not that high-need-for-achievement individuals can eliminate their comparing reflex completely, nor should they. Throughout history, our greatest generals, CEOs, lawyers, and other professionals have driven themselves to achieve significant objectives by trying to outdo others. Comparing becomes a trap, however, when people become so consumed by measuring themselves against others that they fail to step back and see how it’s impacting their actions, and fail to acknowledge and celebrate their own unique successes. When only external factors become our metrics for success, we are setting ourselves up for misery.

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