While I don’t view the life Jenni and I have chosen as any sort of deprivation, I do sometimes succumb to unhealthy comparison. Comparing yourself to others can breed a sense of inadequacy or a feeling of missing out. Teddy Roosevelt said that “comparison is the thief of joy”, was he right? Can healthy positive comparison yield the zeal for competition and yearning to improve ourselves that we need?
A Journey Against Yourself
Do you remember when you began your financial independence journey? Gazing at the summit of FI above you, the climb undoubtedly looked treacherous and hazy.
You had so much to learn.
Time, the greatest strength multiplier of building wealth, was slipping away. You needed to pay down any debt. Then slog through the process of building an emergency fund while cutting unnecessary luxuries. You couldn’t yet rely on compound interest or investment returns to supercharge your wealth growth. In fact, compound interest was probably working against you!
In whatever way you discovered the FIRE journey, it was probably through someone already on the path ahead of you. While they were kind enough to look back and shine a light on the path they’d tread, helping you avoid some of the prickers that worn scars on them, you almost certainly compared yourself in your journey to the place they were ahead of you. Perhaps they already had investments producing passive income for them and a level of FU money that let them take calculated risks.
You wished for the same freedom.
As your mentor lit the path, you followed intently with hope and dreams of a future reality. You followed the guide stones along the way to avoid the thicket. You were taught how to avoid the predators of marketing and mathematical trickery of debt. With a goal’s time horizon reaching several years into the future, you actively made the decision to put in the hard work and built the zeal that’s required.
Yet, somewhere along the way, you stumbled or fell off the tightrope. If you’ve made progress on the path to financial independence, you probably know people who weren’t able to achieve it.
When Comparison Is the Thief of Joy
At some point, we all begin to look around ourselves and see others on their own journeys. If you’re just out of college, ex-classmates get a good job and begin to accumulate the trappings of success: new clothes, the Tesla you’ve been eyeing for years.
As you reach your late 20s, you’ll find your peers have earned a raise or two and sold off their “starter homes”. Perhaps they’ve “moved up” to a suburban McMansion with more bathrooms than residents.
The wheel of consumption around you grows and keeps spinning as you reach your 30s.
When you began your FIRE journey, part of your commitment was to avoid lifestyle creep. Even as your income grew, you kept living like a just-graduated college student. You’ve still got your starter home—even if that’s just a rented apartment. Your car is old enough that you know how expensive getting the timing belt replaced is.
The visibility of consumption
Meanwhile, those around you increase their consumption at a rate that keeps up with their growing income.
Their consumption is conspicuous, you can see it all around them.
Your savings is invisible, the wealth you’re building is what others can’t see.
As you read this and think back to all those times you caught some flack from a friend for your old car, cozy place, or less than trendy fashion; realize the comparison they were projecting upon you. You set the value of time, invisible to them, as higher than visible spending.
If you accepted and internalized the comparison they were making, you’ve let them steal the joy you experienced when you first earned those achievements.
Losing your motivation on the long path to FI is key to how so many slip off the tightrope.
Forgetting your successes
Did you forget about how you negotiated with that shady guy on Craigslist for that old car? You cut 10% off the list price by doing your research ahead of time and identifying a minor problem you could fix yourself!
Don’t you remember how nervous you were going into that meeting? How elated you were when you had the keys and scored a good deal?
Weren’t you proud of yourself for resisting the temptation to buy the car that advertisements and your peers expected of you?
The path to financial independence is the one less trod and you expected it to be different.
Why then do you feel a sense of anxiety and self-doubt as soon as you compare yourself to the world around you?
You’re not running the same race, the finish line is in a different place.
Why do you permit yourself to make these comparisons at all?
Negative comparisons truly are the thief of joy.
We tend to use negative comparisons more than positive comparisons. It’s the negative comparisons that steal joy from you.
Positive Comparison as the Antidote to the Thief of Joy
You know when you’ve been off on a trip for a while and you’re longing for your own bed? You’ve been sleeping in other beds during your travels and they’re just not quite like yours. That first night’s rest back at home is so peaceful and comforting.
It’s relieving to come back home.
Why then do you find yourself wanting for your neighbor’s nicer place? Lustful for the fancy homes on TV. When you’re out for a dinner event at an acquaintance’s place you find your eyes drinking in their balanced decor, name brand furniture, and professionally lit rooms.
But just a moment ago you were remembering how much joy being home after a trip brought you. How does both resentment and appreciation exist for your own things at the same time?
When you lamented the fact that your hotel’s bed didn’t quite mold itself to your body like the one you’re used to at home, you were drawing a positive comparison.
You built new value for your plush bed in your head.
When you perceived your own interior design rife with personal knick-knacks as less than the professionally designed space at the dinner party house, you were drawing a negative comparison.
Objectively, nothing changed—but you’ve let your internal expectations rise.
There will always be someone with visible riches better than yours, don’t get caught in a cycle of oneupmanship. Answer the question of “how much money is enough” for yourself, build the life you want, and stick to it.
Teachers, guides, and mentors in your life block attempts at negative comparison. While their knowledge and ability for that which you seek are high above yours, they don’t focus on the gulf of your own skills in comparison to theirs. They focus on your strengths, they highlight how you can improve, they reveal their own mistakes. They humanize themselves to show you the path they had to follow, complete with their own failures. Their past self was your equal.
They help you set healthy expectations and draw positive comparisons between themselves and you.
Good teachers aren’t gatekeepers, they lower the drawbridge.
Comparing yourself to others
Of course, the biggest source of negative comparison isn’t beds or homes—it’s other people, comparing yourself to others.
Here’s a paradox for you, how are both of these statements true?
- People tend to rate themselves as above average at most things
- Individuals frequently carry feelings of inadequacy and insecurity
A recent study wanted to answer just that question, Why People Believe They Are Above Average but Are Not Especially Happy About It.
The study drew an important conclusion for our discussion. We compare ourselves to what we see most frequently, what catches our eye and the attention of many others.
This is amplified by the fact that those top performers execute constantly and do really well, often. Just think of news media around investing. We hear about Warren Buffett all the time not just because he’s aptly named the Oracle of Omaha, but also because he’s executing trades and investments incredibly often.
It’s a snowball effect (sidenote: Snowball is my favorite biography on the man). As Buffett succeeds, he has more chances to succeed—and more opportunities for us to negatively compare ourselves to his investment success.
Warren Buffett’s million successes can seemingly balance the one failure from a million investors. Rather than setting expectations as a million to one in your investment success, it can seem like a coin toss. Now, when you make your one attempt and fail, you develop feelings of inadequacy or insecurity in your ability.
You’ve compared yourself along the wrong metric: frequency of attempts (sidenote: in terms of attempts, you can make about 3,500 by smartly owning a total market index fund like VTSAX or VTI).
This plays out in all manner of life: we’re much more likely to hear stories of success from friends and family. People celebrate promotions, a fancy new house, successful pregnancies.
You don’t hear about the job firing, failing to make mortgage payments, and the many miscarriages.
Happiness is reality minus expectations
Your expectations are affected by the comparison of externalities and your internal self. Even where objective reality remains unchanged, your perception of an aspect of your life can be negatively affected by increasing expectations bred from the comparisons you make in the world around you.
But the most important thing to understand from our discussion about comparison being the thief of joy is that you control your expectations. You may not always have control over the reality of your life, but you can set yourself up for happiness and joy by perceiving life in the way you wish. That’s power you have, something no one else can wrest from you.
When you read how to become a millionaire in 10 years, don’t attempt to compare your situation and find reasons you cannot. Seek to learn, find the ways in which you can.
By controlling comparisons to limit changes to your expectations, you leave only one variable to your happiness: reality. That’s the journey you’ve planned and worked for. It’s what you’ve set out to achieve, the freedom you decided was worth struggling to clutch. Follow your plan.
Don’t let comparison be the thief of joy from your life.
When you reach the pinnacle of financial independence, I hope you look ahead to see it was only a plateau on the arduous journey of life. You may have reached the apex, but the journey continues. Now you are the positive example to those around you. Lower the ladder, shine the light. Help others achieve what you have.
Be the positive comparison, a source of joy. It’s your superpower.
Do you think comparison is the thief of joy, or is it possible to harness its power?
What negative comparisons have you made on your path to financial independence which has distracted you?
Have you found positive comparisons to motivate you?