The Blooper Reel Syndrome – How We Kill Productivity Through Meaningless Comparisons

Hemingway QuoteThere are few things as destructive to motivation, personal development and productivity as making meaningless comparisons.

And yet, people do it all the time.

We’ve all been in the situation where we’re struggling with something and we look over at someone else to see they’re doing just fine. It’s disheartening. And, a lot of the time, it’s flat-out incorrect.

The problem is that we have unlimited access to information about ourselves that we don’t have about others. Most importantly, we all know what we mean to do. In our mind’s eye, we have a vision of perfection. As we undertake an activity, it’s almost impossible to evaluate our own performance without taking this intention into consideration. And this is fine. I firmly believe that having a goal or a vision is critical to truly exceptional performance.

Where we run into trouble is when we compare ourselves with others. When we see someone else, all we can see is the result of their effort. We don’t know what they meant to do. We don’t know what they’re thinking. And we don’t know how many times they’ve tried and failed before we observed them. The result is that their performance appears effortless and perfect.

In a sense, we are in effect comparing our blooper reel to someone else’s highlight reel. This is hardly fair and in many situations, the research shows that our own performance suffers when we perceive that we’re in a grossly unequal competition.

The key then is spend the greatest amount of our time competing against our former selves–becoming better than we were yesterday. There are certainly occasions when we need to compare ourselves against others to gauge our progress; however for the most knowledge work, this is not the case and we are better served focusing on self-improvement and encouraging those around us to do the same.

2 responses to “The Blooper Reel Syndrome – How We Kill Productivity Through Meaningless Comparisons

  1. Very true! Thanks for this great post!

    It reminds me of those situations from everyday life where we know someone who always seems to be in a good mood – and later we find out that their are in deep trouble. It can vary over many themes. This “the grass is greener on the other side” syndrome also has the aspect of wishful thinking: what you do not know you imagine; what looks good on the surface you imagine to be equally good inside. You want to believe this as it is easier to understand and opens opportunities for you (just copy what they do) – you wish that you had the same success.

    It is partly this phaenomena that lies behind the many failed attempts to copy business philosophies. You choose the philosphy that seems succesful for some others, simplify it even further (on top of the fact that what you see is already a simplification of what they have been through) and then you try to implement it in as few steps and as fast as possible.
    Needless to say why this often goes wrong – it is just the glace of the cake, and without the contents it cannot stand alone and will collapse.

  2. Thanks for your comment Jørgen. I think you’re right that this effect can also lead people to choose strategies in the mistaken belief that they are easy to implement. This reminds me of the trope about watching a duck swim–on the surface they are gliding along but underneath their legs are paddling furiously.

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