4 Types of Comparison, Part 2

How do you know how well you are doing?  You look around. We are social animals who take many of our cues from the people around us.

We all look to our teachers aspirationally while we look to our classmates competitively. Consider this:


This is a number.

This is a big number, you may say.

Why is it a big number?

Only when you compare it to a smaller number, say 100.

It is a small number when you compare it to 100,000.

Most of us do not train privately, we train in a group.  It is difficult to video yourself in class and watch each repetition. It’s much easier to look at the people around you, see how they are doing and compare their results to yours because you are all trying to do the same thing, more or less.

Watching another student perform is a way of getting vicarious feedback. The problem is, you are not getting feedback on how you are doing, you are getting feedback on how someone else is doing. You are witnessing someone else going through the learning process; you’re not going through the process yourself while you are watching.

It may help to see the process, to understand what it will take to improve, but putting yourself in the other person’s shoes is a mistake.

An advantage of Self-to-Other comparison is it can inspire you to try harder – “If he can do it, so can I” thinking. As you watch the other person perform you may say yourself, “let me try that.”

You can follow the other student’s learning path, trying to do everything he does. I often do this when I snowboard. I follow other other skilled snowboarders down the slopes. It’s fun to try to keep up with them.

You can use Self-to-Other comparison to motivate you to work harder and achieve your next level of skill.   Self-to-Other comparison makes you strive and yearn to improve, to be as good as the other student. You may not feel good, being relatively less-skilled, but such a comparison will goad you to take the necessary steps to build expertise.

A disadvantage of Self-to-Other comparison is feeling worse when you compare yourself to people who are better than you are.  You don’t know, or may not realize, all of the effort training and opportunities another student has had that all combined to produce the skill that he now demonstrates. If another student is better than you are, all you tend to focus on is that he is better than you are. You forget all of these individual factors that comprise his current skill level.

You may even be catching another student on his best day while you may be having one of your worst days. On any other day this other student might be looking at you, wondering why you are so much more skilled than he is. Remember the term regression toward the mean.

I had this experience on my second trip to Russia. I was having a particularly difficult time working on certain material. Someone I had never seen before or even heard of within the Systema circles was called up to demonstrate, and he performed brilliantly.  I thought to myself, “The Systema community is fairly small (which it was at the time) so who is this guy, and why’s he so good while I’m struggling right now?”

As it turned out, his performance was several deviations away from his mean skill level — he was performing well above how he normally performed. I discovered this as I watched him continue to train after his demonstration, when his skill dropped down to his norm. I must admit I felt pretty good at the time because in all other areas I performed much better in comparison to him. That was my own ego. In the end, how he performed has had zero bearing on my own skill development.

Yes it’s nice to say I could do better than someone else but that doesn’t help me get any better than I am now or than I was.  I haven’t seen nor heard of the guy since.

As I mentioned, you don’t know all of the life experiences and genetic factors that go into another person’s current abilities.

First of all, there are genetic differences between all of us: size, speed and strength being three.   Serendipity and chance events are others.

The sheer amount of available practice time is one of the big factors that leads to expert skill, as encapsulated in the “10,000 hour rule” proposed by Anders Ericsson.

Being born into a family of skilled practitioners and teachers is obviously a major advantage.  Early opportunities to train with the right teachers and fellow students produce huge benefits that compound over time and are often taken for granted.  Tiger Woods is a prime example here. His father was a professional golfer who was at a place in his life where he could devote all of his time to developing his son’s golf skills.

I heard a story from a Chinese martial arts master who said, traditionally, in China, the wealthiest students were the best martial artists because they could afford the training; they didn’t have to work and could devote themselves to training.

We also see this with Olympians, whose families invest a fortune to give them the opportunity to train, and to focus solely on training for years, free from other obligations.

Certain personality traits, such as being hyper-competitive, possessing a high tolerance for pain or being mildly obsessive-compulsive, may cause a student to seek out situations and training opportunities that greatly increase skill levels.

Before you give it all up and sulk back home with your tail between your legs after you encounter someone with more skill than you possess, ask yourself this:

Do you believe you would be as skilled as the person you are comparing yourself to if you would have had the same type of experiences and opportunities? Would have done the same or better with the same raw material and experiences?

If you can answer “yes,” then there’s nothing wrong with you. Don’t beat yourself up and definitely don’t take it personally.

The funny thing about Self-to-Other comparison is if any of us ever had the opportunity to golf with Tiger Woods we would instantly compare ourselves to him, even with the knowledge of everything he has done to develop his golf expertise.

It seems we just can’t help it.

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