Keeping up with the Joneses

Posted on Tue, Sep 7, 2021 perspective life
TLDR: I discuss how our lives are affected by pervasive social comparison. This is a note to my future self and my curious friends.

When we think of dangerous activities we willfully engage in we might think of sports like football or even driving on the highway at 80 miles an hour. The pervasive institutionalized practice of social comparison is unlikely to cross our minds. Let's define it - it is the process by which people come to know themselves by evaluating their own attitudes, abilities, and traits in comparison with others. In simpler words, it is the practice of sizing things wholly on a relative basis. For instance you feel successful or good-looking or rich only if/when you are more successful or better-looking or richer than most around you. You can liken this to a sport because it is competitive and we derive pleasure from winning at it. Much like contact sports the risk of brain trauma is real here as well.

abstract dangers

We tend to react stronger to tactile injuries like a fractured knee compared to abstract ones like anxiety or sadness. For instance many parents go out of their way to get the very best in bike helmets while doing little about the mental impact demanding schoolwork has on their children. Too often our survival instincts cloud our judgement - evolutionary priming wants to protect your physical body (hardware) so it'll live to see another day and procreate; your mind (software) is less of a concern. In the modern world there is plenty of food to go around, we have law enforcement to curb violence and the wild animals are gone. Most of our challenges and threats are abstract. For instance when we get upset or angry we fight back with the mind and not the body - a frown, a put down or an attack on social status; hardly anyone takes a club to the head. Our reactions and even thoughts trigger injuries of the mind, not body. We need to increase our awareness of these intangible traumas.

social influence

Looking to others to learn how to react is a hardwired trait. When my newborn son slips and hurts himself he looks at me. If he senses my panic he cries. If I am composed he stays calm too. This is how I pass on to him my stimulus-response playbook. While it is beneficial to teach a newborn that fire hurts and food is yum with social influence, it is undesirable when someone grows up and perpetuates harmful stereotypes society taught them. Clearly there is an evolutionary advantage to unanimous consensus - groups that are aligned and fight or flee together are more likely to survive. But our days of confronting tigers behind bushes are gone. In the modern world we can survive just as well without subscribing to the most popular opinion. But fighting darwinian inclinations doesn't come easy.

the other guy

Let's face it - for any measure you care about bell curve statistics are here to guarantee your disappointment. There is always someone smarter, richer, better looking or healthier than you are. Let's call them alphas. Those dedicated to these measures will sooner or later bump into an alpha around them and agonize over the differences between them. While some of our insecurities like appearances can be thought of as being evolutionary or pre-programmed, the vast majority are not - wealth, smarts, status etc. These are invented insecurities that are learnt and perpetuated, a mandated recipe for a dissatisfied life. In Silicon Valley, popular insecurities are title, compensation and entrepreneurial outcomes. In gradschool, they are publications. In highschool, GRE scores. In school, grades. In preschool, art. And even prior to that it is growth milestones for babies, but it is the parents who are insecure. At every phase in life we allow for one or more measures to define us. We are always wanting to be that other guy that we forget to be ourselves.

rulers and scales

For most consequential decisions we make in life such as whom to marry, whom to hire, whether to have kids etc. using metrics as the sole decision criteria is a bad idea. Quantifiable measures, while convenient to use, don't capture the relevant multidimensional aspects personal to you. For example, the net worth of a prospective groom alone can't predict happiness in marriage; IQ of an individual alone does not predict their success at work. As the saying goes, things that are easy to measure are often unimportant. Important things are often hard to measure. Society will gleefully sell you its standardized scales and rulers. Don't buy them, don't use them. They are bogus. A growing number of institutions are reversing their use of flawed metrics. For instance university admissions in the US will no longer require SAT scores. Discover your own qualitative scales and let it guide you like captain Jack Sparrow's compass.

expensive sheep think

We take comfort in doing what everyone else does. We tell ourselves that that way we'll all be in the same boat, even if it ends up being the Titanic. It is easy to overlook that blind acceptance of the general agreement can be costly. For example, in any market the popular item (stock, housing area, employer etc.) due to sheer demand is going to have an inflated cost relative to the value of that good. This cost could be literal money in the case of a hot new IPO stock or increased work expectations in the case of an in-demand industry. You would be better off making bets elsewhere on goods that cost you less and hence has a larger potential upside.

you are yöu

One's DNA and life experiences are unique. Their needs, wants and ambitions are their own. Yet giving oneself the permission to play by their own rules is the exception and not the norm. I notice that only at middle or old age, when the disillusionment starts to set in or the damage from playing social comparison was too high to continue, people start to divorce societal norms. I wish more of us can do this earlier in life. Life is too short. A majority of the people in my life are intellectual, they know their insecurities are out of choice and that they have the power to opt out. But social comparison indoctrination is deep rooted and it often takes a shock to the system to think and act differently.

my past

Although I consider myself successful by most conventional measures, I don't recall feeling that way at any point in my life. Growing up with parents who dreamed of giving me the education they never had, in a highly competitive education landscape, I was constantly ruthlessly compared with my peers. It was beaten into me that high scores weren't worth rejoicing unless it was a cut above the rest. Even though I did well in my class, I often felt like I was struggling to meet that unforgiving bar that was set for me. In gradschool and Silicon Valley as I worked alongside the best and brightest, the crem de la crem, social comparison exacerbated the feeling of inadequacy. I was dedicated to winning very hard games others around me wanted to play, forgetting to ask myself what mattered to me.


For additional perspective, here are a few quotes on this subject that resonated with me.

If you want to make the wrong decision, ask everyone. - Naval Ravikant
if you don't prioritize your life someone else will. - Greg McKeown
It is more efficient to start with what you want and work backwards to what you need to make that happen, than to make all the money you can and then figuring out what to do with it. - Ray Dalio (paraphrased)
Are you living for your resume or your eulogy? - Peter Attia

my future

My wife and I recently quit our high paying tech jobs to take a sabbatical. We want to take some time away to get some clarity and be intentional with our next career move. You can read more about this in my wife's blog here. It is such a privilege to spend this time with my wife, child and dog without work commitments. I am taking the time to indulge in water sports, read, do few passion projects and find my inner compass. Hopefully at the end of this sabbatical I'll leave my insecurities behind and only compare myself to who I was yesterday.

This post is mainly a note for my future self. If you've stayed with me till this point hopefully you got something out of this. I am not recommending you quit your job like I did. Find your middle-ground between running the rat race and living under a rock. Refuse to engage in the d**k measuring contests society enrolls you into. Stop thinking about the Joneses and live your life.