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  • Phil Venables

The Danger of Comparisons (There’s Always One Level Above)

No matter what you experience, what level of achievement, results or status you attain there is always something that might be perceived as better or one level above.

This is often illusory as you will usually be comparing the curated best of someone (or something) else with the internal knowledge of yourself or your environment. The same goes for the comparisons of companies, features, security programs, and so on. This can be dangerous as it can send you down an incorrect path and expend opportunity cost vs. what is actually best for you or your situation. 

I’ve been to many conferences and other events over the years where someone presents their work or their company’s efforts as exemplary. Often it is good work, but it's usually not as complete or pervasive as they (perhaps inadvertently) can lead everyone to believe. That’s natural, what is presented is that curated and well presented version of reality not usually reality itself. For sure, I’m not immune to this although I do try to heavily contextualize things with some degree of humility. But, in general, comparisons should come with a safety warning. 

Now, I’m not saying you should never compare or, to use another dreaded phrase, benchmark (especially for budgets). It is important to strive for bigger results, to improve your work, to advance your skills and generally achieve more. If any of us were to say such drives were absolutely meaningless then I’d be very suspicious. Even people who devote their lives to charitable works are highly motivated to do more, benefit more people and are probably pretty happy when they are publicly lauded or otherwise recognized for doing so. 

But, in all walks of professional, personal and philanthropic endeavors it is also important to balance such ambition and drive with a means of being happier with what you’ve got, what you’ve achieved and to feel satisfied without feeling the need for constant external comparison. To be more precise, it’s important to measure your team’s work and your progress against your own targets and past performance, not necessarily someone else’s. 

I started thinking a lot about this on a recent vacation. Some of you who follow me on Twitter (@philvenables) will have seen my family vacation this year included Formula 1 Grand Prix events in Zandvoort (Netherlands) and Monza (Italy). Incidentally, as I write this I’m on my way back from the Las Vegas Grand Prix where I had a similar experience - albeit the corporate hospitality version. 

On vacation, I decided to splash out a bit at Zandvoort by going to what is called The Paddock Club. This is kind of the “high-roller” world of Formula 1 attendance, mostly for corporate hospitality, but you can buy-in personally. It’s not cheap but it was one of the few things where it, oddly, felt like good value overall. Now, what was very amusing about this experience was watching some rather entitled people in the Club go from insanely happy at first to then visibly upset when they realized The Paddock Club was not actually the pinnacle of privilege. Despite this being several levels up from regular attendance they had realized that there were still other levels above them. Next to The Paddock Club was a whole other level, the Paddock itself (where the teams work and drivers mill around). Here is the realm of sponsors, team owners, minor celebrities and such with a required "VIP" badge. The even funnier thing is, this isn’t even the very top level. The level above this is private dining and functions in the team private spaces. I don’t know, but I bet there’s even a level above this I haven’t even glimpsed. 

Another example from a very long time ago was when I worked for a company whose exclusive airline was British Airways (BA), and this being the 90’s and early 2000’s we occasionally would get upgraded from a regular flight to the Concorde. I suspect this was not a perk, but rather a means of BA freeing up business class seats they could more likely sell at a premium. But, the funniest thing about this, as lowly IT workers just incidentally getting upgraded courtesy of the hard-yards of doing so much business travel, was swanning through the BA Business Class Lounge at Heathrow or JFK, then walking through the First Class Lounge to subsequently watching a certain set of entitled people (who were previously so smugly satisfied with being in the First Class Lounge) then get upset that they didn’t have access to the Concorde Lounge that we were entering through a discreet entrance. Again, there’s always something better. 

Anyway, there is a point to this. Our roles can be hard.

Compounding the fully known challenges of your role, your life, your situation by comparing that with someone’s carefully curated and hugely optimistic representation of what they do is not only going to make you less happy but is actually going to decrease your momentum toward the results you need. 

So, how to deal with all of these natural pressures?

1. Know Your Own Goals

The only goals that matter are your own goals. Yes, that is a statement of the blindingly obvious. But, it takes discipline and hard work to not only formulate those goals, agree what they are, and obtain or align resources to give you a fighting chance of achieving them. It can take even more discipline having set yourself to the task to stay focused in the face of comparisons with other organizations, what a vendor may pitch you on or what you see as the latest trend at RSA, BlackHat or other presentations. It can be all about the framing:

  • Wired: My goals are my goals, I’m achieving them well and not being distracted by following trends like other organizations are doing. 

  • Tired: I’m focused on my goals, but I’m kind of frustrated that all these other organizations are implementing the “Latest Thing” and it will be years before I get to do that. 

  • Expired: How will I ever benchmark successfully against my peers when they’re doing all these great presentations of their work - is everything they do so perfect?

2. Heads Down - Do the Work

Once you’ve decided on your goals it’s all about doing the work. Yes, another statement of the obvious, but it’s amazing once people start the work how other perceived priorities come along. These can put pressure on adding more work than can be reasonably done while still focusing on the main goals. This is hard and I regularly struggle with this. It’s difficult to walk the line of knowing what is a priority that does need to supersede current goals vs. something that is a distraction or can otherwise wait until the next planning cycle. Some people that pride themselves on not being distracted can get too fervent about this and miss an adjustment to take advantage of some unexpected opportunity or suddenly feel a risk spike that they could’ve and should’ve more swiftly reacted to. 

The same goes for personal, life or other family goals. Comparisons to others or their situation, comparing your internal to their external is a sure fire way to misery. It’s not only depressing but it causes you to miss what is in fact the thing that is right for you. 

Another angle to this is being unhappy that you’ve not made sufficient progress either in your career or professional activities. I’ve mentioned this before in other posts, that I often get asked by people how to get involved in some of the more significant advisory boards and parts of the public service I do. People are frustrated that in the early stages of their careers they aren’t in, say, 2-3 years being catapulted to the pinnacle of such service. My advice back to do the work and put in the time is usually disappointing. I spent 10 years of minor work, doing the grind, driving the relatively unappealing tasks, little of which got any wide attention, before being asked to do the broader and more visible things. In some cases this was more like 15-20 years. Perhaps I’m not that good as it took me so long or perhaps that is just what you need to do. 

3. Be Curious

Curiosity is a great cure for many situations. When you find yourself becoming frustrated with your progress, having watched that amazing presentation from some company or person who seems to be getting it all right then just get curious about that. Ask yourself:

  • How likely is it that person is representing the full context?

  • How likely is it that their Legal team had them cut the 5 slides that went into the awful gory detail of how hard it was and in fact how much of their environment doesn’t quite meet what they are presenting? 

  • How likely is it that the person’s crafted social media persona is simply a highly selected positive sample of their full self and life and that they (like everyone else) don’t feel right actually sharing their vulnerabilities, failings, anxieties and doubts?

  • How much, if you were to present your work, would others be impressed compared to their situation and would that be over 90% of peers or peer organizations?

4. Ask Questions - Respect not Envy

The ultimate example of curiosity is to actually ask some questions. At a conference, for example, ask the person after the event what went wrong, how hard was it, or what remains to do? Every time I’ve done this you get the version of the talk with all the lessons learnt and challenges you wish everyone could have heard. Interestingly, it’s usually cathartic for the person being asked these questions as well. 

In all walks of life, ask people genuine questions about the challenges they’ve had achieving the thing they’re known for or just posted or presented. Ask them what it took to get what they have seemingly achieved. Every time I’ve done this it is astonishing the hardships even seemingly effortless professionals have endured, the self-doubt and challenges that remain, the litany of failures both recovered from and not so well handled. I often wonder if we should normalize having a “FailureCon” to do this. 

5. Reduce Social Media Intake

Like everyone, I presume, my mood is inversely correlated with the amount of social media I look at. 

I’ve now more tightly curated my feeds and generally only use it to interact with people directly, to look for news episodically (when certain social media can be a bit ahead of other media) or to message people. I’m trying to steer clear of their own feeds and consequent mindless scrolling with some success (despite the best efforts of some social media companies). I feel a whole lot better for doing this. 

6. Look Backward and Forward - Benchmark Your Prior Self

A big part of the risk manager’s role is to project forward and look at all the bad things that might happen and may need preemptively mitigating. This enumeration of all the possible bad things and then deciding which few are possible to mitigate, or even worth worrying about, can be inherently negative. In other words, if the only thing you’re doing is comparing today to all the things you might not be able to do tomorrow then you’re bound to be a bit down on life, work, the universe and everything. 

Therefore, it’s vital to not just do this but to also look back at the progress you’ve achieved. Benchmark yourself, your team, your organization and other things to the version of these 5 years ago, 3 years ago, 1 year ago, perhaps even 6 months ago. Doing this not only gives you a boost about the progress you’ve actually made but it also positions you with more optimism about the challenges ahead. 

I find when doing this, coupled with the curiosity we just discussed, you can then see that the progress you have made is a lot more than the organization you were unfavorably comparing yourself to. In other words you went from doing X to doing X much better. They went from doing Y better but are behind on X. That’s ok, Y might be more important for them. X is more important for you. If you presented X at a conference they were attending they’d likely be worried that you are, in fact, so far ahead. 

7. Compare Context 

Now, this last point is the key. That is to recognize that comparisons are often useful. They enable us to learn, they can cause us to strive and they are - if we’re honest - probably most useful to encourage our own leadership or budget guardians to not want to get behind and give us the resources we need. However, context is critical. Some organization you’re comparing yourself to might have, to pick one example, moved from 50% to 90% coverage for some risk mitigation across their software base. You might have achieved a move of 10% to 50% but you did it in an environment of significant legacy, multiple acquisitions, some challenged business units and a more diverse technical architecture. Yes, you would prefer to be at 90% but you likely worked harder, innovated more, developed more interesting techniques and were more challenged than the other organization that didn’t face those headwinds. 

When looking at that context it might be that the notionally “better” organization could learn more from you than you from them. They might even desperately need your lessons to get themselves from 90% to 100%. 

Finally, when you are presenting your work, be proud of what you’ve achieved, the lessons learnt, but also be humble and admit it was tough, that you had contextual advantages (or disadvantages) and that you have much left to do. 

Finally, don’t criticize others as you don’t know their context. We’re all just “people in the arena”. 

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat." Theodore Roosevelt 

Bottom Line: no matter how good you have it, or how great your situation is, there’s always one level above. So, by all means strive but remember to also enjoy the hell out of what you’ve got and look back at the progress you’ve made in your situation. Don’t overly focus on comparisons except in relation to how much progress you’ve made vs. your goals. If you do want or need to benchmark then look at inputs/context as well as outputs and adjust accordingly. 

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