Comparing our performance

I felt this tweet from Charlyn Partridge deep in my gut:

[TEXT] Things I’m starting to learn: People think I’m doing a better job than I think I’m doing.

Measuring up performances is an unavoidable and often odd thing among humans. Largely it comes down to what we’ve set as the benchmark.

When we’re assessing our own performance, I think many (maybe most) of us fall into one of two traps.

Option 1: We compare ourselves to others while stripping away all context.

Option 2: We compare ourselves to an impossibly flawless ideal self.

In the first, we see what others are accomplishing. How do they do it?! Why can’t I keep up? I’m just not as good as they are. We think this without considering differences in experience, skills, interests, access, and whatever else is (not) going on in their lives and ours.

I think of an author sharing the experience of being interviewed by another writer who expressed her envy of the author’s success. The author, noting that she had been at it a decade longer than the other writer, told her she hadn’t earned the right to envy. Now, I generally think that people have the right to feel whatever they feel (though not to do with that feeling whatever one wants). But it does crystallize the idea that much of what we envy, much of what we compare to, isn’t a difference in ‘natural talent’ but in time and experience (and yes, networks and privilege play roles too).

In the second, we know what the perfect version of ourselves would do under idealized circumstances if everything were to go perfectly to plan. This ignores the reality of our messy lives and messy world. In chemistry, we would do a lot of calculations assuming ‘standard temperature and pressure’—0 degrees Celsius, 1 atmosphere of pressure. But we understood it’s an approximation. Lab settings, even when pristine, are rarely perfect. We might do work to optimize reactions, but often we just needed good enough. And everyone knew at least one story of the reaction or protein crystallization or other lab protocol that only worked at a certain time of the day or year.

So how is it that others come away with such incredibly different assessments? They’re looking at the results and outcomes of our performance. They may or may not know what the intended results were. But they (usually) hold us to such impossibly high standards of process or contextless production. They have the advantage of more objective comparison and focus on what we’re accomplishing—with less interest in whether we took “the way” to get there.

There are times when how we do things does matter (e.g., getting an experiment done but in accordance the appropriate regulatory approvals). But often when we’re judging our work, we overindex on process. Sometimes we need to step outside ourselves and consider what we’re comparing our performance to.

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