It’s Time to Stop Comparing and Look for the 5 Percent

Our minds may latch on to the perfect solution, but small, incremental changes are what get the job done
September 4, 2020 Updated: September 4, 2020

We know we shouldn’t compare our lives to the lives of “more successful” people because when we do, we tend to feel deficient in comparison.

But far more debilitating to our psyches than comparing ourselves to our neighbors and movie stars is the nasty habit we have of comparing ourselves to what we feel we should have been, could have been, should have done, or could have done. All of these are recipes for psychological disaster.

One of the most common reasons why we get depressed in life is regret about something we did or didn’t do. It’s often a result of comparing our current life to how we think it should have been by now.

But what should have been is not. It doesn’t exist anywhere but in our mind. In our memory. In our imagination of what life today should be like. It’s a movie script that was never produced, and for some reason, we believe that it should have been. But ask yourself this: Why should it have been produced? Actually, the answer doesn’t matter. It wasn’t produced, and that’s step one: recognizing reality.

Facing Reality

We need to learn to stop comparing ourselves to imaginary figments of what the present should have been. And yes, sure, this also includes learning how to stop comparing ourselves to our neighbors or college friends and their accomplishments, because it’s all part of this habit we have of assuming things should have been different.

But what if how things happened was how it was meant to be? Consider the possibility that everything happened just as it was meant to happen, and, in fact, the only problem is with you. The problem is how you are interpreting everything.

I am sure some of you are shaking your heads and saying, “What does this guy know? I made the stupidest mistake 10 years ago and I’m still feeling the effects of that today. My life sucks, and it shouldn’t have happened to me, and I shouldn’t have been so dumb,” and blah, blah, blah. Same old story. But the regret and sadness you have is of your own making and does nothing to improve your situation. In fact, it does the opposite.

The longer you continue to deny reality, the longer you will feel sad and depressed. Accepting life as it is is a first and critical step to engaging with it meaningfully. As long as you refuse to accept responsibility for the thoughts that create your feelings, you will remain a prisoner of your own mind.

Often we are sad or depressed for one of two reasons:

1) We feel our present and future is ruined because of something that happened in the past, or
2) We feel our present and future is ruined because of something that should have happened.

In other words, sadness and depression are often related to the past. Or rather, our constant focus on the past.

Engaging With Reality

Stephen Covey, in his book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” shares the concept of your circle of influence versus your circle of concern. We should focus on our circle of influence, and never our circle of concern. There are a lot of things that concern us, but over which we have no control. While Covey doesn’t explicitly say so, your past is something over which you have no control. It’s part of your circle of concern.

On the other hand, your circle of influence is everything over which you do have control. In the realm of time, it’s your present, how you approach your future, and how you think about your past. These are all aspects of your life you have control over.

Taking this a step further, Dr. Arthur Freeman and Rose DeWolf share a concept in their awesome book “Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda” that the key to happiness usually isn’t in fixing your past or making your childhood dream come true (though the latter is definitely still worth pursuing). Actually, happiness and life satisfaction can often come from simply improving your life a tiny bit. That’s the 5 percent improvement.

Here’s the question to ask, “If you could do one thing that would create a 5 percent improvement in your life/job satisfaction/relationship/etc., would you do it, even though it’s not the 100 percent ideal that you dreamed of?

In an unemotional logical frame of mind, you probably would say, “Yes, of course.” Yet, many of us don’t do this. We want the perfect solution, so we discard the 5 percent improvement as worthless when that improvement could be just enough to make you feel awesome about your life.

Incremental Upgrades

We often misjudge how much we need to change to have an exponentially positive impact on our life. Consider this: How many times have you been sad about something, and then a friend or family member calls or another event happens, and that spurs a small shift in thinking that helps you to feel better about the situation?

Now, let’s take it a step further, with a more active example. Let’s say you want to go to Harvard (your 100 percent solution), but you don’t get in. Are you going to throw away the idea of a college education? Of course not. You will probably go to another school and get your degree nonetheless. Odds are you will feel pretty proud of yourself when you get that degree and it will still open doors to a whole other life you couldn’t have had otherwise.

(On a related side note, go read, “David & Goliath” by Malcolm Gladwell, a story about two women who wanted to become famous surgeons. One went to an Ivy League school. The other to a community college. Guess who became the world-famous surgeon?)

I can think of two such situations in my life that destroyed me for many years, but I ultimately overcame both of these “failures.” How? By acknowledging that they happened, and looking for the 5 percent improvement in my life now. It’s incredible the effect that an imperfect solution can have.

Consider the two options: living a life that is focused on your past failure, or living a life that improves incrementally by small but significant improvements. The answer (now) to me is clear: Small improvements are the key to a happier life.

Incredibly, just the act of seeking a 5 percent solution can have a major self-esteem boosting effect. The execution will give you yet another boost. And boom, the ultimate accomplishment of the actual improvement will make you feel awesome. You will wake up one morning and think, “It’s hard to believe that I was really upset about losing that job at one point.” Or, “Wow, I can’t believe there was a time when I was so heartbroken about that girl/guy.”

Most likely, you will also look back and be grateful that everything happened as it did, because the life you built is a life you appreciate.

As the saying goes, “We make plans, and God laughs.” God doesn’t laugh at us because he is reveling in the sight of us failing to reach our dreams. No, God is laughing because we are not as clear about our “dreams” as we think we are. We are meant for so much more than we dream for ourselves.

So stop moping, and start micro-improving! These small improvements are will add up faster than you expect.

Dr. Monroe Mann, Ph.D., is the founder of BreakDiving.io, a not-for-profit social media community dubbed by some as the friendliest place on the internet. He’s an attorney, Youtuber, Iraq veteran, public speaker, and author of “Time Zen,”  “T.R.U.S.T.,” and many other books. Reach out at MonroeMannlaw.com