I love the internet and am fascinated by how effortless it has become to stalk stay in touch with people and blackmail them get instant updates on what cool things they’re up to.

Of course, Facebook, LinkedIn, and the rest have also made it incredibly difficult to avoid comparing ourselves with everyone and their brother.

Melanie just won the Met job?!

Milo and Madison just got married?!

Michael’s quartet just performed with who?!

Argh! Why does it seem like everyone I went to school with has a perfect life, complete with thriving career, 2.5 super cute kids, beautiful dandelion-free lawn, and the world’s cutest puppy?

Comparing our accomplishments with that of others can be discouraging and demoralizing.

So it’s no surprise that many top performers work diligently to cultivate an internal locus of evaluation, or a set of criteria for defining success on one’s own terms – not what society or one’s social circle would define as an acceptable version of “success.”

It’s hard to ignore others’ achievements completely, but as it turns out, paying attention to others’ accomplishments can sometimes be helpful. Where others’ successes can actually increase our own confidence.

How so?

Self-efficacy

Psychologist Albert Bandura has spent decades researching “self-efficacy,” or the belief we have in our ability to achieve a particular goal.

Our self-efficacy comes from several different sources, the most impactful of which is previous experiences. For instance, if our solo goes really well in rehearsals and in the first few performances, we’re more likely to believe that it will go well the next time too.

But another source of self-efficacy is “vicarious experiences,” or times when we see others succeed. As in, “hmm…if so-and-so did it, I bet I could do it too.”

Vicarious experiences at the water park

I’ve been wanting to take our kids to a water park for years. So this summer, we finally did it.

We thought the kids were old enough, but when they saw the size and speed of the slides, their eyes grew bigger and they got quiet.

My son was hesitant, but once he saw the other kids successfully navigate the slides, he gave it a try, and was soon having a blast.

My daughter on the other hand, remained skeptical. Watching her older brother get to the bottom safely didn’t do much to enhance her self-efficacy, and since there weren’t any children her age going down the slide, she had no opportunities to build confidence through meaningful vicarious experiences.

Indeed, vicarious experiences are most helpful when the people experiencing success are individuals that we perceive to be similar to us.

So if you’re going to compare yourself with someone else, compare yourself with someone whom you perceive to be similar in some way.

Maybe you both grew up in a small town. Or went to the same school. Or studied with the same teachers. Or won the same competition.

We have seen an example of this in the NBA recently. The success of players like Stephen Curry (drafted #7 out of Davidson College) and Damian Lillard (drafted #6 out of Weber State), has not only made other “mid-major” talents more optimistic about the possibility of an NBA career, but emboldened teams to take a chance on other players from smaller schools.

My next door neighbor

Also watch out for the tendency to underestimate yourself and put everyone else up on a pedestal. Just because we don’t see someone’s struggles and low points doesn’t mean it’s peaches and sunshine for them all the time.

Case in point, I once lived next door to a concert artist, and often heard him practicing through the wall. I didn’t know he was a well-known performer though, until a friend told me. At first, I didn’t believe my friend.

Because my neighbor didn’t sound like what I imagined a world-class artist would sound like.

He played out of tune. He made mistakes. He kept stopping. He struggled to get things just right. I could even hear him get frustrated at times.

On stage, he sounded amazing, but it was a revelation (and strangely reassuring) to discover that top performers don’t just roll out of bed sounding like their world-class selves.

They can have rough days in the practice room, play out of tune, have memory slips, and crack notes too.

It’s trickier to compare yourself with someone you don’t perceive as being similar, but if your mind insists on comparing yourself to someone who is older/more advanced/more experienced/etc., at least try to avoid comparing your worst moments with their best moments.

Remember that it may not be so much that they’re different, but that they’re just a few steps ahead of where you are right now.

Focus on strategies, not outcomes

The last thing to keep in mind if you’re going to engage in external comparisons, is to focus less on others’ successes and achievements (which will just make you feel all insecure and mopey), and more on the strategies or process they used to get there (which you can learn from, and utilize to get you there faster).

What are the keys to their preparation? How do they stay in control of their emotions before a performance? What do they focus on while performing?

Top performers aren’t necessarily blessed with unwavering confidence, focus, and resilience. Most have to work at it quite a bit. So the good news is that there’s nothing wrong with us. We’re not screwed up or hopelessly broken or deficient. We just have a bit of work to do, and if they’ve already figured out the answers, we might as well take advantage of their experience and insights.

Take action

Sport psychology consultant and author Terry Orlick has conducted in-depth interviews with many top performers, from elite mountain climbers to astronauts to surgeons.

The transcripts below are fascinating and reassuring at the same time. As you read through the transcripts below for strategies you can apply to your own mental toolkit, you’ll notice some recurring themes. Focus. Positive mindset. Thorough preparation.

For me, the main takeaway was how hard they all worked. How much attention was paid to the smallest details. How failures were turned into future successes.

It was also clear that they didn’t arrive at their level of expertise effortlessly. They had to climb the same mountain we all do. And since we can’t know the upper limits of our potential, who’s to say we won’t get there some day too?

Curt Tribble, elite cardio-thoracic surgeon

Chris Hadfield, NASA astronaut

Caryn Davies, 2008 Olympic Gold Medalist

Elite Mount Everest climbers

Which was your favorite? What was the main actionable takeaway?

Additional resources

Terry Orlick’s archive of interviews and papers contains many more such goodies, and also includes helpful information specifically geared towards working with children.

The one-sentence summary

“Don’t compare your worst to everyone else’s best.” ~Unknown

photo credit: Daniel*1977 via photopin cc