“Comparison is the thief of joy,” so the proverb tells us.
This saying discourages us from side-eying others’ accomplishments and minimizing our own. It also warns us against envy, the kind of attention to others that corrodes our ability to embrace them and share in their joys without suspicion or spite.
There are great reasons to be careful with comparison: we don’t always see what precipitated the outward advances others make, and as Lisa Nichols says, success often involves incredibly hard, un-glamorous work and a lot of inconvenience.
At the same time, as humans, comparison is one of the basic ways we learn. Small children mirror the expressions, gestures, and language of those around them. They learn from others how to respond to and interact with their environment. And being able to distinguish between this and that, to compare similarities and contrast differences, is a life skill.
Benchmarking, a form of comparison, is a core technique of fact-based management and quality improvement. The Malcolm Baldrige quality improvement community defines benchmarking as “identifying processes and results that represent best practices and performance for similar activities, inside or outside your industry.”
So we search out people and organizations doing similar work to ours, so that we can learn which of their practices, approaches, and outcomes work really well and which we might adapt to our own situation.
We’re looking at others, not from dissociative envy or to minimize our own contributions, but so that we can make more progress more quickly. In short, benchmarking is a way to take the stairs two at a time and rapidly build on others’ success.
Who we compare ourselves to and who we benchmark our work against are important decisions, and neither of them wipes out our need to do our own work!
Apply this to your own situation and see what changes. Do you have colleagues in a similar environment? Competitors to learn from? Does your industry have expectations of or performance standards for your work? If there aren’t industry standards, are there any fair expectations for your geographical region? Use these standards to assess yourself and plan for progress of your own.