Cherry blossoms

Beyond the podium

Three people stand on the podium. The gold, silver, and bronze medalists. Who is the happiest? That’s easy, the gold medalist. But, of the remaining two, who is happier? Disappointed? Silver, the second best in the world, is disappointed. If only she’d been a little faster, she’d be standing atop the podium. Bronze is elated. She knows that if she’d been a little slower, she wouldn’t be on the podium at all.

One looks up and wonders what might have been.
The other looks down and sees what she just missed.

How we frame things matters. For how we feel. For how we make decisions.

Framing is everywhere. Here is one aspect from Kahneman and Tversky. We don’t assess things in an absolute sense; instead, we measure relative to something, a reference point. We view things in terms of gains and losses. And we feel losses much more than gains. But we have some influence over our reference point.

Like the medalists, we have a choice. We could “look up.” But there will always be someone who is smarter, richer, better looking. Even worse is when we assemble the best of others into a mythical superhuman. If that’s our reference point, we will always fall short. Very few can be “the best.”

We also tend to compare ourselves narrowly. To our peers. The people we went to college or graduate school with, our neighbors, our coworkers. Most of the people we know are pretty similar to us. And our peer group is adaptive; our peers change with us as we become more or less successful.

We’d be better off if we looked “beyond the podium” from time to time. And appreciate that there are many who didn’t even get a chance to compete. We think we know what other people’s lives are like. But, in reality, the people that we know, that we interact with regularly, represent a minute cross section. If you are always measuring yourself relative to the best, you’ll fall short. So, I say, be like the bronze medalist and be grateful you had a chance to compete.

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