The reassuring irrationality of the world

By Marc McDougall

I have a nasty tendency to get into comparative thinking: using very logical means of comparison to evaluate my life relative to other people.

“He has more money than me….”

“She is more mature than I…”

“He doesn’t have as many problems as I do…”

Woe is me, right?

I’ve been reflecting on how those kinds of logical assessments of the world are not compatible with the way we actually see it.  We tend to use an emotional, contextual lens to view the world, and as far as we’re concerned that contextualization is our world.

I have a nasty tendency to get into comparative thinking: using very logical means of comparison to evaluate my life relative to other people.

Comparison, in this sense, is actually impossible because you cannot actually see someone else’s world.

Right…but how is this reassuring?

Being unable to actually compare your life to someone else comes with it’s own relief.  However, it’s also reassuring to know that “success” itself (at least how we perceive it) is also incompatible with logical, rational measurements.

Almost nobody makes one correct decision after another compounding resources as they go.  “Success” doesn’t have in interest rate, nor can you be “one degree more successful” than someone else.  “Success”, however you define it, comes to everyone through a series of small wins, setbacks and lucky windfalls.

To make this practical for a moment, consider the freelance copywriter who is currently in the throws of some serious financial woes.  If we were to evaluate her situation using logical metrics, one would conclude that she is objectively less “successful” than a photographer who is thriving financially with an abundance of clients.

In the real world however, this would be a grossly misinformed assumption.

Her desperate financial situation could force the copywriter into an incredibly-painful crossroads where she’s forced to radically transform her personality, and then is capable of making many emotionally difficult decisions that would have not been possible before the pain.  The kinds of decisions that most people who had not had to endure the pain would not be capable of making.  These may be the kinds of decisions that catapult her practice into windfall profits, where the photographer is trapped servicing stable, yet demanding clients never knowing that there’s an alternative.

Thus, despite how illogical it seems, setbacks could actually position someone to out-perform someone else who was experiencing lots of logical, slow progression in their career.

Taking this a step further…

We see this in the domain of innovation all the time — tech giants get established implementing “logical”, intentional patterns for growth, and then someone comes out of nowhere with a remarkable leap of innovation making their business all but irrelevant.

Using sensible approaches to measure and compare things completely falls apart when exposed to the real world, and it’s remarkably reassuring.