Would you rather live a life where everyone around you saw you as far more successful and generous than you really were or a life where your many accomplishments and good deeds were credited to others? What if those closest to you knew the real you?
If you would choose the path of higher achievement but less recognition, it’s likely that you live by an inner scorecard rather than an external one. Instead of striving for the approval of others, you’re driven to earn self-respect.
Research on the subject suggests that having an inner scorecard correlates with a happier life. Frequently comparing yourself to others, a by-product of having an external scorecard, is linked to having less self-esteem and lower life satisfaction.
Whenever I meet a person with an inner scorecard, I sense that they’re completely at peace with themselves. They might have a great deal of ambition, but without the usual need to be seen and admired. Instead of seeking to prove their worth to the world, they operate with an inner fire, born with curiosity and a passion to make the most of their lives.
To reach this place in your own life, it’s important to understand why we compare ourselves to others in the first place and the ways in which this can be both helpful and harmful. We’ll never completely leave this impulse behind (for good reason), but we can prioritize another measure of success that leads to a richer and more fulfilling life.
The Roots of Comparison
As social creatures, we can’t help but look at others to see how we’re different and similar. Comparing ourselves to others helps us form a self-identity. It’s in others that we see vivid examples of the kinds of people we do or don’t want to become.
The pursuit of well-earned recognition from those we admire can be a powerful and healthy motivator. If you surround yourself with people of similar values and goals, the feedback you get by comparing yourself to others can have a very high signal-to-noise ratio. In other words, you’re likely to get useful insight without too much distraction or confusion.
But unfortunately, comparison has proven to be a great source of unhappiness throughout human history. There are at least three reasons for this:
We’re more sensitive to loss than gain. We mostly compare ourselves to those who are better off. When we see something that someone else has that we want for ourselves, it can motivate us to action. But if the goal is too far away or unrealistic, it can also lead to a sense of loss. The principle of loss aversion states that humans experience the pain of losing or not having something far more intensely than equivalent gains.
Comparison easily leads to envy. While some comparison can be healthy, investing too much of your energy in this area can create powerful desires for what others have. Instead of being able to enjoy what you already have and appreciate the success of others, your own unmet cravings can lead to resentment and bitterness.
We start living other people’s values. Another powerful effect of our social nature is that our desire for approval can lead us to adopt other people’s goals as our own. It’s possible to get so caught up in achieving recognition and admiration from others that you realize, too late, that the goals you achieved don’t align with your own values.
The Impact of Technology
Those who live with an external scorecard and a stronger impulse to compare have always run the risk of unhappiness and frustration. Warnings against envy and other fruits of comparison go back thousands of years, including the Book of Proverbs in the Christian Bible.
But recently, something has changed to upset the precarious balance between the benefits and drawbacks of comparison. In the past 20 years, social media use throughout the world has skyrocketed. The average internet user now spends nearly two and a half hours per day on social media sites.
Social media use can be a wonderful tool, but it can also be a breeding ground for comparison, which has been linked to higher levels of depression. The content shared on these platforms highlights the coolest and most interesting examples of what life has to offer. In comparison, it’s easy to feel that your life is dull and less successful.
Compounding the problem, screen time, which now eats up a large portion of our waking hours, displaces slower and more reflective activities, such as reading, writing, and time alone with your thoughts.
If you’ve lost your inner scorecard, it may be because you’re swimming in a sea of possibilities. Instead of deciding on the trade-offs you’re willing to make and the values that you want to guide your actions, you pursue what everyone else is doing. Self-reflection is much harder when your mind is constantly being fed examples of what other people are doing.
Cultivating an Inner Scorecard
It’s possible to draw inspiration from others while still maintaining an inner scorecard, but in our modern environment, it won’t happen by default. You’ll need to push back against the instinct to compare and measure your life against others. Here’s my simple framework for independently pursuing a meaningful existence:
Define your values. Think about where your deepest values come from—your sense of what makes life good, beautiful, and meaningful—and write down the ones that you want to guide you. This will help you aim toward becoming the person you want to become.
Understand what you really want. Now, within the framework of your values, decide the kind of life you want to lead. How do you wish to use your time? Who do you want to surround yourself with?
Recognize the trade-offs. You can do almost anything you want with your life, but you can’t do everything. Every decision to pursue one path will leave another untrodden. Don’t fall into the youthful trap of thinking you can leave all doors open forever; a good life is forged by decisions and commitments.
Remember what you set out to do. Reflect on your values and goals regularly. Measure yourself against where you were yesterday or last year and not where others are in their journey today.
Turn down the volume. There’s no use hiding from the world so that you won’t be tempted to compare yourself. Instead, choose carefully the voices you allow to speak into your life and the people whose opinions you truly value. When it comes to everyone else, take their opinions lightly.
Ultimately, the optimal solution for maintaining an inner scorecard, while remaining a social being, is to prioritize your self-respect over the opinion of others. The applause of others is a sweet reward, but it fails as a guide to becoming the truest and best version of yourself.