How Do You Measure Your Life?
In the early 1980s, a talented young guitarist was kicked out of his band. The band had just been signed to their first record contract, and they were preparing to record their first album. A week before recording began, they fired the guitarist. There was no warning, no discussion. The guitarist woke up one day and was handed a bus ticket home.
The guitarist was demoralized. He felt betrayed. No one considered his side of the story. No one cared how he felt. At the most crucial moment of the band’s short career, he was abandoned by those he trusted the most.
So he vowed to start a band of his own. He would start a band so amazing and so successful that his old band would regret ever firing him. He would become so famous that they would spend the rest of their lives thinking about what a horrible mistake they had made. His ambition would make them pay for their disrespect.
He recruited even better musicians than before. He wrote and rehearsed religiously. His desire for revenge fueled his passion. His rage ignited his creativity. Within a couple years, his new band had signed a record contract of their own and was taking off.
The guitarist’s name was Dave Mustaine, and the band he formed was called Megadeth. Megadeth would go on to sell over 25 million albums and tour the world many times over. Today, Mustaine is considered one of the most brilliant and influential musicians in all of heavy metal music.
Unfortunately, the band he was kicked out of was called Metallica. Metallica has since sold over 180 million albums worldwide, and they are considered by many to be the greatest heavy metal band of all time.
And because of this, in a rare intimate interview in 2003, a tearful Mustaine admitted that he couldn’t help but still consider himself a failure at times. Despite all he had accomplished, he was still the guy who got kicked out of Metallica. Tens of millions of albums sold. Concerts performed in stadiums full of screaming fans. Millions of dollars earned. And yet, a failure.
Comparison Is Inevitable—and It’s a Choice
This is where most articles say, “Hey, don’t compare yourself to others, be happy, blah, blah, blah,” and then we all circle jerk over how great of a life lesson this is and go back to sharing funny pictures of Miley Cyrus on Facebook.
But this advice is totally banal and petty. “Don’t compare yourself to others.” It’s up there with, “Just be yourself,” and “Act confident,” in terms of how useless it is.
As humans, we’re wired for comparison.1,2 It’s an inevitable facet of our being. We are constantly trying to gauge how we measure up to those around us. It’s even been suggested that by ‘downward comparing’, comparing ourselves to those less fortunate than us, we may temporarily improve our well-being.3 Useful if we are reminding ourselves to be grateful, not so great if we think we are ‘superior’ to any one person or group.
That guy has a better car than me. She is taller than me, but I’m prettier. I wonder how much money Bob makes and if his wife spends it all. Gosh, I wish the people at work listened to me the same way they listen to Jake.
Comparison and the drive for status are innate parts of our nature and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.4 Particularly as widespread access to the web and social media has made that comparison easier than ever before.5
But what we can change is the basis of those comparisons. What yardstick are we using? We may not be able to stop measuring ourselves against others, but we can decide which yardstick we use to measure.
A simple example: I don’t make as much money as most executives and managers in the agricultural industry. By one metric you could, therefore, say that I am less successful than they are. And in fact, if you put me next to one on an airplane, in a fancy restaurant, at a business conference, or in an expensive nightclub, those environments would reinforce my feelings of inferiority. By those yardsticks, I do not measure up. Mr. VP of Monsanto is sitting in first class. I’m not.
But I make a comfortable living helping people improve their lives, while Mr. VP up in first class extorts his money from thousands of poor farmers around the world, interfering with world food markets and helping perpetuate the poverty of millions of people in the developing world.
So, first class or not, I feel like I have a leg up on him.
It’s all in how you choose to measure success. I don’t measure my success by displays of monetary wealth. I prefer to measure it based on social and global impact. Is that totally self-serving and biased? Absolutely. And that’s the point: You get to choose how you measure success.
Most of us are never told this. It’s not something we pick up in school or church. In fact, most of our social systems are built with their own metrics of success ingrained into them which we are then expected and sometimes forced to follow.6 Even if there’s no compulsion much of what we believe about the world comes from what we observe from our parents, our friends, and our culture, and that includes what makes a person ‘successful’.7
Get good grades. Make tons of money. Go to church. Buy nice things. Raise a nice family. Watch football. Feign shock when Miley Cyrus shakes her ass on TV.
Many of society’s metrics are useful measurements for us. Many of them are not.
It’s vital that we remember that they’re not absolute. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to them.8 These are things that we can largely change, if we choose to.9 Money is nice, but one can choose to see it not as the absolute measure of wealth, but as a useful tool to help achieve true wealth. Religion gives billions of people’s lives moral direction, but that doesn’t require one to believe in religion to be a good, moral person. Relationships and family are important, but lacking them doesn’t make you any less valuable as a person.
Again, we get to choose. And the beauty and the frustration is that we’re all different, so most of the time our metrics will be different.
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How Will You Measure Your Life?
So this raises the question: How will you measure your life? Which metrics for success will you choose for yourself?
This is not an easy question to answer.
Back in my dating coach days, I worked with a lot of men who had poor metrics for success in their dating lives.
They wanted to judge their “success” based on how many women they slept with, how attractive the women they dated were (often utilizing a 10-scale to do so), how many women they could date at once, how young of a woman they could date, and so on.
(It’s no coincidence that men with these metrics of success are the same ones who struggle with relationships.)
These metrics of success are problematic because they make harmful and unattractive behaviors appear economical and rational. For instance, if one’s metric for success is to date someone who is rich/popular, then lying or faking one’s identity may become a rational strategy in order to achieve that success. But these strategies are demeaning and also lead to poor relationships. Even if achieved, they are also unlikely to lead to long-term satisfaction.
For men like these, I developed something I call “Happiness Hypotheticals,” which I’ve found to zero in on the utility of a success metric.
For instance, to these men I would often say:
“Let’s pretend you had a choice to date one of two women. One is stunningly gorgeous but is immature and not enjoyable to be around. The other one is average-looking physically, but you are always happy when you are around her. Which one would you choose to be with?”
Or to men who have a fixation on their number of sexual partners, I would say:
“What would you rather do? Sleep with 10 girls who don’t excite you? Or sleep with one who blows your mind night after night?”
The answers to these questions are blindingly obvious to most people. But people who have unhealthy fixations in their dating lives experience a lot of cognitive dissonance when trying to answer these hypotheticals.
The reason I bring these up is because once I moved beyond dating, I found that these hypotheticals apply wonderfully in most areas of life. For instance, here’s a classic question for you to chew on:
“Would you rather be rich and work a job you hate, or have an average income and work a job you love?”
This one is a little bit deeper:
“Would you rather be someone famous and influential for something that doesn’t matter (like, say, being on a reality TV show), or be anonymous and unknown despite working on something that is insanely important (like, for instance, researching cures for cancer)?”
Or for those who feel like they always need to be dating somebody:
“Would you rather have nothing but toxic relationships, or would you rather always be alone and emotionally healthy and happy?”
Choose Better Metrics
Questions like the Happiness Hypotheticals are powerful tools, not only because they force us to take a step back and evaluate our lives, but because they can also show us what metrics of success and what underlying values actually matter to us. Many of us think relationships will make us happy, but emotional health should be the goal and relationships the side effect. Many think popularity will make them happy, but one should do something important and noble and let the fame be the side effect.
As humans, we’re all driven by happiness and meaning, but we often get caught up in unnecessary status concerns and superficial comparisons. When we create hypothetical either/or situations between those comparisons and happiness, it can quickly sort our priorities out for us. Tools such as these show us ways in which we can measure our own success.
I’m not famous, but I improve people’s lives. To me, that makes me successful. And sometimes I even struggle to keep that in mind. You may be single and alone right now, but you can also be happy and proud of yourself. That makes you successful.
We must take care in choosing the way in which we measure success because the metrics we choose will determine all of our actions and beliefs. And often these metrics are based on our values.
For instance, if you decide that watching 12 hours of television per day is your life’s ultimate purpose and your greatest metric of success, then within a few months you’ll find yourself fat, lonely and miserable (and successful). If you decide becoming the biggest drug dealer on your block is your definition of success, then you may find yourself shot.
The metrics of success which we choose lead to long-term, real-life consequences, and they determine everything.
I challenge you to take a moment and set up Happiness Hypotheticals with some of your biggest drives and desires in your life and see what answer comes up. What you’ll notice is that bringing your yardstick off of external measures of success and onto internal states of happiness and meaning will lead to a more purposeful and fruitful life.10
Here’s a recent example of mine:
Earlier this year, I found that I was getting really hung up on how many people were reading my book and my blog. I was getting frustrated because, for the first time in my career, my readership had plateaued. I found myself tempted to pander to the lowest common denominator just to get more traffic. I had to ask myself, “Would I rather be read by a massive audience for something I don’t care writing about, or a smaller audience for something I do care writing about?”
That quickly put things in perspective. I need to write about the things which are important to me in my life first and look to cater that information to help others second. That’s the only way that what I write will feel true.
In the case of Dave Mustaine, he felt like a failure after decades of massive material success because his metric for success was a superficial one: being better and more popular than Metallica. But what if Mustaine had instead chosen happiness as his metric? What if he decided to measure his success based on how widely and enthusiastic his music was received by people, and how well he felt he was expressing himself artistically?
That would have changed everything.
- Social Comparison Theory, developed by Leon Festinger in the 1950’s, suggesting that humans are driven to compare ourselves to others to gain a better assessment of where we stand in relation to the group.↵
- Festinger, L. (1954). A Theory of Social Comparison Processes: Human Relations, 7(1), 117–140.↵
- Wills, T. (1981). Downward Comparison Principles in Social Psychology. Psychological Bulletin, 90, 245–271.↵
- Harari, Y. N. (2015). Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harper.↵
- Lee, S. Y. (2014). How do people compare themselves with others on social network sites?: The case of Facebook. Computers in Human Behavior, 32, 253–260.↵
- Shermer, M. (2011). The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. Henry Holt and Company.↵
- McAdams, D. P., & McLean, K. C. (2013). Narrative Identity. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(3), 233–238.↵
- In her now-famous book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, psychologist Carol Dweck defines a ‘fixed mindset’ as one in which we believe we just are the way we are and there’s not a lot we can do about it. We are a victim of circumstance. In contrast, ‘a growth mindset’ is a mindset in which we believe that our skills and capabilities can be learned, improved upon, and cultivated. And it has been linked to better performance in work, school, and therapy, among others.↵
- People who believe they have control over important parts of their lives—even what they believe—have what’s called an internal locus of control. People with an external locus of control, on the other hand, believe they have little control over what happens to them. Guess which type of person fares better in just about every area ever studied? See: Ryan, RM & Deci, EL 2008, ‘A self-determination theory approach to psychotherapy: The motivational basis for effective change.’, Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, vol. 49, no. 3, pp. 186–193.↵
- Bronk, K. C., Hill, P. L., Lapsley, D. K., Talib, T. L., & Finch, H. (2009). Purpose, hope, and life satisfaction in three age groups. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(6), 500–510.↵