Comparison is the thief of joy

In a world obsessed with competition, how do we measure our worth beyond a rank or number?

min read
Danny Almagor
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Berry and I have a saying we love, can’t remember where we heard it. “Comparison is the thief of joy”. It is so true, and I often have to remind myself that this life I am living is not a race against anyone else. It is mine, and there is no winning or losing, but for my own experience of it. So why is it that our economy, and indeed society, has been set us up with competition and ranking at almost every turn?

Our son Amos is doing VCE at the moment, and he loves music, performance, literature, and history. In the end, though, he will be compared with students who are studying biology, mathematics, physics and chemistry (people like me). Their various results will be marked up or down depending on the value we put on each subject and ultimately converted into a single ranking as a literal position out of 100.

Maybe he gets 76.45, or 91.20, or even a perfect score of 99.95. What do I tell him about his self-worth, his value to society, his happiness, his purpose? Whatever it is, it seems completely disconnected to the silly rank that our education system will give him. Allow me to share why I don’t particularly like this type of competition, comparing mathematics to literature.

Imagine you are at the Olympics and the committee decides they want to rank all the athletes. Who is faster, Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. Who is more skilled, Rafael Nadal or Samantha Kerr? Do we mark down the swimmers because, well, they compete in the water? Actually, I think land is easier so let’s mark down the land events. It just makes no sense, so we don’t do it. We accept that the soccer players compete with each other, the runners too, and the tennis players. Each of them are the best in their domain. Why can’t we do the same for our kids?

Beyond the exciting world of the Olympics, there are plenty of activities that we love but will never make it into the competition. Could you imagine a music category at the Olympics. Trumpeters competing for the gold medal, ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ style. Or comedians, or authors? Although we do have some wonderful artistic performance competitions, it is clear that the competitive structure of fastest, strongest or most goals scored does not make sense in all scenarios. Is Beyoncé a better musician than Eric Clapton? By what measure? And does it matter? We can each have our favourite, love what we love, and in my opinion, both Clapton and Beyoncé should feel pretty good about themselves and their talent. Maybe some things do not need to be ranked.

Albert Einstein once said that ‘not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted’. Measurement is always a proxy for something. The final score is a proxy for which team played better, your high school score is a proxy for how smart you are, and your salary is a proxy for how important you are to the organisation. But we know that some of these proxy’s are not often very accurate measures of value. Just think of the essential workers during Covid. Our society couldn’t function without them, but many of them were at the lower end of the salary ladder.

More than that, as Einstein said, some of the most important things simply cannot be measured at all? The sacred, love, awe, joy, service, kindness, community, self confidence, hope, faith and so much more.

We seem to be so obsessed with measurement. What does ranking really tell us about ourselves and each other? My favourite story is about Jaime Oliver. He shares that he was not all that good at school. A dyslexic kids who struggled to read and write, found his calling and became one of the best selling authors of all time - having sold nearly 50 million books worldwide, he is the top selling non fiction author in UK history - not to mention his media, philanthropic and business successes as well as changing the way we think of food, particularly in the school system. I would love to ask his year 8 English teacher what she thought would become of that little ratbag back then.

So if all of that makes sense and you agree that it is absurd for our kids to be universally ranked at high school does it not also make sense for us adults too? Instead of a mark out of 100, we grown ups get to consolidate all value into a wonderfully simple measurement: the dollar. What is the value of a school teacher? A banker? A ton of carbon? An airline ticket? A haircut? A free range egg? A tree cut down vs a tree standing up? What about the safety of our streets, the quality of our air, the education of our children, or the love of a mother? How can all these things be compared? How good are our measures of value? When does it actually matter?

And finally, the mother of all simple, reductionist and mono dimensional ways of measuring value, that one single measure our economists and politicians seem to care most about, the ultimate proxy for all of our economic progress: GDP. When this number is growing our economy is doing well, when it is shrinking we are in trouble. Don’t bother that it grows when we go to war, have more sick people going to hospital and add food miles by shipping spring water from Fiji to Sydney. Or that it shrinks when you don’t get sick, when you grow your own food in your backyard, or when you cook a meal for your neighbour instead of ordering Uber Eats.

It is a great proxy for the consumption of earth’s resources, but It is a poor proxy for economic health and for human wellbeing.

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