"I could be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there's still going to be someone who hates peaches."
-Dita Von Teese
I'm bringing the firewood to the fire ring. This is the last step in setting up camp. Standing in our campsite we stare out at the St. Croix River, admiring our view from basecamp this weekend. The next day we're talking to our neighbor who has a large trailer. He's quite proud of it. He says to us, "Don't worry about your rig; we started out in a pop-up, too. You have to start somewhere."
I get a little irritated because he's making an assumption about us that's incorrect. We love our pop-up. It gives us a place to hang out if it's rainy or cold (or both), and the tent material on the sides allows us good sounds and smells while we sleep.
About a year later, my wife is visiting the factory where they make and sell Scamp trailers. She's been fascinated with these small trailers for her whole life. As she's talking one of the guys who works there she asks him about people who get the very tiny trailer (13') versus the people who get their larger (but still small) fifth-wheel trailer. He told her he loves his job because "everyone defines camping differently."
That was a thought-provoking statement. We thought about it and it made total sense to us. Some people camp in a very large motor home, using it as a way to travel and be able to stay in their own space, but giving them some comfort they get from home. Others wouldn't even think about driving to a campground; they throw on a backpack and hike or canoe to a remote spot where nobody else will be around. Most people are somewhere in the middle.
If you think about it, you replace "camping" in that sentence with just about everything.
Every defines ________ differently.
Good Financial Behavior Isn't Always Exciting
If you apply this idea to finances, you understand that everyone will define the "best" way to use their money differently. Best is in quotes because some people have a very short-term focus, using their money how they see is the best way in the moment. Others have a more long-term view and are more disciplined with their money because they recognize that the future version of themselves need to be cared for, as well.
Even though the "disciplined" approach is more likely to offer better outcomes, it's not always exciting. It's even less exciting when you see others behaving differently. Perhaps you bought a house that was well within what you could afford, but not as big as you were hoping for. Many would agree that's a prudent move. It's easy to second-guess yourself when you see your colleagues and friends buying huge houses, though. Or, maybe you are being responsible with your money by living well within your means and saving a large portion of your income. That sounds reasonable, but it can seem boring when you see your friends living large and enjoying life more than you seem to.
Doing what's right can seem boring and fill you with envy if you define "best use of money" the same way others do.
We Feel a Strong Need to Belong
Part of the reason it's so hard to see others doing something differently from how we are is our strong need to belong. Belonging is one of our basic human needs (along with autonomy, safety/security, self-expression, connection, and purpose/significance). Our ancestors needed to belong to their group in order to survive. Getting kicked out of the tribe meant you were alone and being alone wasn't good for your survival. Your animal brain is wired for survival, which is why many people will take steps to fit in when they know they ought to be doing something differently.
Binary Thinking Hurts
It's easy for us to think in binary terms. That is, we tend to think in ones and twos. Our ancestors were in or out. We think things are right or wrong. People are either good or bad. It's us versus them. The problem, of course, is that this implies there is no middle ground. You either did the "right" thing with your money or your inner critic calls you dumb. One person used her money in a "good" way but a different person used his money in a "bad" way.
If we don't belong to the in-crowd, then we can easily judge ourselves.
Think of the Whole Spectrum
Another problem with binary thinking is that it's simply wrong. There is more to life than black and white. The world lives in shades of grey. The world is subjective. What's right for me is wrong for you. You don't always have to choose between two options; you can have, think, believe, or like both.
It's even better than this. As you know, the world doesn't actually exist in greyscale; there are a lot of colors. If you lived your life thinking you had to choose between black and white, or even a mixture of black and white, you would be missing out on a whole spectrum of colors.
There's Always Someone "Better"
This comparing through the lens of binary thinking - right or wrong - further contributes to our negative emotions because of simple mathematical fact that no matter what arena you're thinking about, there will always be somebody who makes you look like a chump. This is the nature of the bell curve.
You can be really good, but you're not the best. Social media makes sure you know that. This knowledge need not get us down, though. Here's another fact for you to think about; if you are winning at everything, it means you weren't trying anything new. You aren't bettering yourself. So of course there will be those who make more money, or those who have saved more, or those who use their money for different things.
If we step out of the world of binary thinking we can understand that everyone is free to live their own lives.
We all have a different set of values. If you saw a male crying at a meeting at work, it's easy for us to assign that as wrong - as in, there are only two ways of thinking it. Alternatively, you could see someone who holds different values about what level of expressing emotion is appropriate.
What makes sense for someone else doesn't have to make sense for you. Let's revisit the drawing from above. It's common for many us to have overlapping values - especially if we have similar upbringings, but it's rare we'll all going to have the exact same set of values we hold dear. There are even some - like Person F in the drawing - who don't hold any shared values as us. That's not right or wrong; that's just different.
Think Big Picture
If you look around and see someone who's better than you, it's easy to fall into an envy trap. "I'm better than that person, why do they get all the rewards." I'm urging you to zoom up away from the trees to look at the forest. So one person has a bigger house than you do and drives fancier cars. What you don't know is that they have two mortgages on their house, can barely make their mortgage payments, and they lease those cars. Or, maybe they have the money to comfortably own those possessions, but they have to work a lot of hours at a job they hate in order to afford them and all those hours are making their marriage fall apart and their kids are rebelling because of it.
You don't know the whole story. It's not clear if someone is actually "better" than you, so I'm giving you permission to let it go.
Getting comfortable with and clear about what's important to you and what money needs to do for you will give you the confidence to stop comparing yourself with others. You don't have time to worry about them; you have enough to do yourself.
You only have one life. Live intentionally.
Oz Chen: Binary vs Spectrum Thinking
Derek Hagen: Aligning Your Money and Your Values
Brad Klontz, Ted Klontz: Mind Over Money
William Miller: Listening Well
Sarah Newcomb: Loaded
Marshall Rosenberg: Nonviolent Communication
Jordan Peterson: 12 Rules for Life
Carl Richards: The Behavior Gap
Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.
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