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  • Writer's pictureDan Haylett

The Human Quirk: Why Relative Success Often Trumps Absolute Achievement

In the grand theatre of human aspirations, the pursuit of success is not always tethered to absolutes. We're driven by the comparative dance of comparison, striving not just for personal betterment but for outshining our peers. It's a peculiar quirk of human nature—preferring relative progress over absolute success, even when the latter might seem objectively superior. So, why does this curious predilection persist?


The Comparative Nature of Humans


Picture this: you're speeding on a motorway, adrenaline coursing through your veins as you pass another car. The fact that you're still well within the speed limit doesn't matter; what counts is that you're ahead. This seemingly inconsequential scenario reflects the human proclivity for relative success. The comparison, the thrill of being ahead, surpasses the objective measure of speed.


We're wired to compare and compete. From early tribal communities to modern-day societies, comparison has been ingrained in our evolutionary fabric. Our ancestors compared hunting prowess, artistic skills, or physical strength to secure their place in the social hierarchy. Fast forward to the present, and the elements have evolved, but the essence remains: we still seek validation and status through comparison.


The Dopamine Rush of Relative Gains


The human brain is an intricate chemical cocktail, and one of its key ingredients is dopamine—the "feel-good" neurotransmitter associated with reward and pleasure. Relative success triggers a surge of dopamine, fostering a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Whether it's a promotion at work, surpassing a colleague's performance, or even scoring marginally higher in a test, the comparative edge amplifies the emotional reward.


Psychological studies have revealed that people often prefer scenarios where they earn £50,000 while others earn £25,000, rather than earning £100,000 while others earn £200,000. The relative gap, not the absolute amount, determines the perceived success and contentment.


Social Constructs and Cultural Influences


The societal constructs we inhabit perpetuate this comparative mindset. Social media, a sprawling landscape of curated highlights, fuels comparisons. Our feeds showcase not just our achievements but the achievements of others, perpetuating a relentless cycle of comparison.


Cultural norms also play a significant role. In some cultures, success is measured in relation to one's peers, family, or community. The pressure to excel relative to these benchmarks often outweighs the pursuit of absolute achievements.


 The Illusion of Control and Perceived Progress


Relative success provides a sense of control and progress. In a world rife with uncertainties, focusing on relative gains can offer a semblance of control. It's easier to measure progress when compared to others, even if the absolute progress seems slower or less impactful.


Additionally, the pursuit of absolute success might seem daunting or unattainable. Relative success, on the other hand, is within reach, fostering a sense of attainability and motivation.


Balancing the Scales


While the allure of relative success is undeniable, finding a balance between relative and absolute achievements is crucial. Embracing personal growth, setting internal benchmarks, and finding fulfilment in individual progress can offer a more sustainable and gratifying journey.


Understanding the nuances between the two and consciously choosing the metrics that align with personal values can help recalibrate our focus. Celebrating both personal milestones and acknowledging others' successes without comparison can pave the way for a healthier approach to success.


In the grand tapestry of human ambitions, the dance between relative and absolute success continues. It's a complex interplay, shaped by evolutionary imprints, societal constructs, and individual perceptions. Perhaps the key lies in recognising that success isn't merely a destination but a multifaceted journey, where the metrics we choose to measure matter as much as the milestones themselves.

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