As it’s almost time for my birthday, I thought I’d write about an idea that I’ve had for a long time. It’s one I’ve shared with many of my clients over the years. In a nut shell, I like to imagine that each of us comes into this world, from whatever ‘party’ we left before we got here, with a goody bag. At some point we begin to become conscious of what’s in our goody bag – and that’s when the fun begins. What do we do with the gifts we’ve been given? Do we embrace them? Do we work at finding new ways to use and apply them? Do we squander them? Do we ‘play’ with them for a while and then grow tired of them? Do we – and this is perhaps the most dangerous response of all – compare them to what others have in their goody bag and feel what we have in ours does not measure up?
For many folks I’ve met and worked with, a good portion of their life is spent focusing on what others have in their goody bag, wishing they had the same gifts in theirs. This got me thinking about social comparison. Just this week, the issue of comparison came up with two of my clients. One of them turned me on to the following maxim: “Comparison is the thief of all joy”. Ain’t that the truth? Or is it? Comparison somehow lulls us into thinking we’re going to end up feeling better about ourselves, but it never seems to end up that way. After making a social comparison, we either come to believe we aren’t good enough or we realize we’re jerks because we’ve managed to feel better about ourselves by reveling in someone else’s limitations (assuming a downward comparison).
“Hold on a minute Anita,” you might be thinking. Aren’t there some benefits to social comparison? This was part of the dialogue I had with my second client. Should we just be content with what we have and not strive for something more? Doesn’t noticing what others have, make us want to do better for ourselves? In fact, one of the arguments of social comparison theory is that comparing ourselves to others provides useful information that helps us accurately assess our strengths and weaknesses. Social comparison can also be a motivator. It can help us strive to do better. It is the stuff of friendly (and sometimes not so friendly) competition. If we’re in a running race or participating in some other form of physical endurance competition, comparing ourselves to a fellow competitor could push us to move faster, run farther, swim longer etc. Research supports this point. Observing the success of others (depending on how similar they seem to us) can offer us a sense of what’s possible for ourselves. In short, social comparison is not always a bad thing.
Where does that leave us? On the one hand, we should embrace what’s in our goody bag and not peek over with envy to look at what’s in the next guy’s goody bag. On the other hand, it’s not a bad idea to use social comparison to provide an accurate gauge of where we stand, to prod us to excel or to feel better about where we are right now. It seems to me that it comes down to motivation and balance. First, what’s the motive behind making a comparison? Do we want to reinforce our negative self-view or do we want to propel ourselves to the next level? Second, how much of the time are we spending looking outside ourselves versus inside? Are we cultivating an internal frame of reference or an external frame of reference?
Nothing earth-shattering about these thoughts. What added a bit of an interesting twist for me, however, was a video I came across the other week by Stan Phelps (you can see it here) related to different types of what he calls “pink goldfish”. His idea is that we should strive to be “FLAWSOM”. According to Mr. Phelps, being FLAWSOM is about leveraging what’s different about us to our advantage and making no apologies for it. In this model, we should either do more of what makes us unique and/or do less of what everyone else is doing. It asserts that our flaws ARE what make us awesome. Hmm – take that social comparison. I suppose in order to fully appreciate what IS different about us, we need to size up what is going on with others. In this case however, we’re not doing so in order to make ourselves feel better, to try to best the other guy or to reinforce our insecurities. Instead, we want to look at others so we can embrace the aspects of us that are NOT them. An interesting perspective. I LOVE it! That said, I don’t think this is an easy feat. While driving in the car with my husband last night to a comedy show, I explained the concept and then proceeded to try to articulate (eloquently) what exactly makes me unique (in a FLAWSOM sense) as a leadership coach. Yow – harder than I thought.
I understand that professionally at least, we’re supposed to know EXACTLY what differentiates us from everyone else. After all, that’s just Marketing 101. But, thinking about what differentiates you in terms of your flaws is a whole other ballgame. I ended up trying to ‘back door’ my way in and it came down to this: I work with HiPos, seasoned leaders, C-Suite executives, Millennials, Gen-Xers, Baby Boomers, men and women and I connect with ALL of them – provided their goal is transformation and they relish connection. There’s something precious to me about being let in behind the curtain. It’s raw, edgy, authentic – the place from which true, first-order change emerges. When I get to bear witness to the internal shifts that result in external behavior change, it’s like winning the lottery. There is a magic of sorts that takes place in my relationships with clients. It’s slow and non-linear and it’s easy to miss in real time, but somehow in retrospect both I and the client look back and see that the needle has indeed moved, sometimes in ways we hadn’t anticipated. So admittedly, that’s more about the experience than it is about the flaws that make me different. Unless of course, you consider the notion that what distinguishes me (makes me ‘weird’ in Phelps’ view) from others is that I crave that behind the scenes reveal. I despise the commercial – I’m not good at producing my own nor at sitting through someone else’s. I want to know who you REALLY are and I want to know what you plan to do about it. Are you all about embracing your imperfections? Do you need to add new skills to your repertoire? Is it time for you to move past self-limiting beliefs? I want to accompany you on the ride, wherever you’re going. Proprietary methodologies aside, I will push you, challenge you and hold the image of your unique beauty and strengths until you can see these for yourself, own them and rock them in your personal and professional life. Those ARE the things that make me weird. Unique? That and a kick-ass sense of humor. (No – I was not performing at the comedy club).
Now I’m curious – what’s in your goody bag? Do you practice self-comparison? If so, how frequently and for what purpose? What do you think of the idea of using comparison to become FLAWSOM? What are you willing to flaunt that makes you uniquely you – even if it’s antithetical to what everyone else is doing?