Imagine the Olympics, where you have the three winners of a race standing on the podium: the gold, the silver, and the bronze.
Imagine what it’s like to be the silver medalist. If you were just one second faster, you could have won the gold! Damn! So close! Damn damn damn! You would keep comparing yourself to the gold winner, full of envy.
Now imagine what it’s like to be the bronze medalist. If you were just one second slower, you wouldn’t have won anything! Whoo-hoo! You would be thrilled that you are officially an Olympic medalist, and got to stand on the winner’s podium at all.
Comparing up versus comparing down.
Your happiness depends on where you’re focusing.
The metaphor is easy to understand, but hard to remember in regular life. If you catch yourself burning with envy or resentment, think like the bronze medalist, not the silver. Change your focus.
Instead of comparing up to the next-higher situation, compare down to the next-lower.
If you aim to buy “the best” thing, you may feel like gold, but when the new “best” comes out next year, you’ll feel like silver.
Instead, if you aim to buy the “surprisingly good” thing, it will keep you in the bronze mindset. Since you’re not comparing to the best, you’ll feel no need to keep up with the newest thing.
I’ve met a lot of famous musicians.
The miserable ones were upset they weren’t more famous, bitterly comparing themselves to the superstars.
The happiest ones were thrilled to be able to make a living making music.
Anything that has a varying price, like real estate, the stock market, or even salaries.
If you catch yourself comparing your deal to the best possible deal, and upset at the difference, try comparing to the worst possible deal, and feel grateful for the difference.
When you’re being ambitious, trying to be the best at a specific skill, it’s good to be dis-satisfied, like that silver medalist focusing on the gold. Use that to practice and improve.
But most of the time, you need to be more grateful for what you’ve got, for how much worse it could have been, and how nice it is to have anything at all.
Ambition versus gratitude.
Looking up versus looking how far you’ve come.
P.S. The medalist metaphor came from book “The Paradox of Choice”.
For great and funny examples of upward versus downward comparisons watch Louis C.K.’s “everything is amazing and nobody is happy”.
Also this Jerry Seinfeld bit about this exact same subject! (“I’d rather come in last than win the silver!”) Thanks to Ebrahim Rahimi for showing me this after the article was posted.