Education

Why and how to avoid social comparison in a job search (opinion)

“Not again! Mary received an invitation to an interview with a Fortune 500 company. John, remember him? He accepted a job offer in Hawaii, where he always wanted to go. And Kate got promoted only a year after being hired! Meanwhile, my own job search seems to be a disaster. I think to myself that all good positions are already taken. I am never going to be a faculty member. Sigh.”

Not exactly verbatim, but I often hear similar stories during my career coaching sessions, especially when social comparison, but not healthy competition, fuels a job search. While it is good to know whom you are up against in your quest for a dream position, if left unchecked, constant comparison can make an already stressful situation more nerve-racking. Thus, today, I’d like to share a few strategies to help you deal with the urge and consequences of unhelpful “me versus them” appraisal while you are in the job market.

First, let’s take a closer look at this peculiar human behavior to understand how it shows up in our daily lives. According to the social comparison theory, people tend to evaluate “their abilities and attitudes in relation to those of others” to assess better their social position, self-image and subjective well-being. On the one hand, knowing where we are relative to other members of society helps identify areas for improvement, create a more positive self-image and helps us gain insights into unfamiliar environments. On the other hand, habitual upward comparison with those who are judged to be better may lead to an intense buildup of envy, jealousy and a fear of missing out.

Here is how this may play out in an ordinary job search: initially, you reach out to successful professionals in the hopes of refining your application materials or soliciting interview tips. The more information the better, right? However, soon you might come to believe that everyone is doing much better than you are. Next, you decide to turn to social media for comfort, only to encounter the same phenomenon — everyone else is moving up the career ladder, with you lagging behind. Now, you hear a demotivating internal soundtrack put together by your inner critic and a fearful feeling that you are an impostor. Voilà: comparison at its best. (Or shall we say worst?)

Knowing that this social behavior is of a part of our making, how can we keep it from negatively impacting our job search and workplaces?

Pick your reference point wisely. The social comparison theory suggests that we evaluate ourselves against different groups, aka a reference point. This evaluation could be done in upward, downward or lateral directions. In the first type, the reference group includes members who are judged to be better and/or have more money, fame, knowledge and the like. Practicing this type of appraisal may breed resentment, a feeling of inferiority and negative self-perception.

In contrast, the downward comparison yields the opposite results. If manipulating the reference point can bend human perception, how can we use this knowledge amid unhelpful comparison? Of course, it is possible to harvest positive feelings from the misfortune of others. But instead, it’d be more beneficial to travel back in time to when you were less experienced, educated and skilled. Observing and fully re-experiencing your amateur younger self could reset the reference point, resulting in more appreciation and gratitude of your current situation.

Make comparisons like a scientist. During my past life as a scientist, I conducted multiple studies to investigate changes in animal behavior. I carefully designed the experimental groups to ensure that I compared apples to apples and not apples to elephants. For the research, it meant all the subjects would have to be sex-, age- and trait-matched to the best of my abilities.

For a job seeker, that would mean you would compare yourself to people with the same current job title, similar background, years of experience and other attributes that are relevant to the job. Moreover, it would be important to know which job they are applying for. That knowledge would prevent you from wasting your mental energy on examining an industry candidate when you are in the market for a faculty-track position. And in case you met a professional who didn’t fit the group description, you’d consider this person as a resource or inspiration, not a new reference point.

Exercise the abundance mind-set. Once, a friend unexpectedly got a job that I secretly wished for. Upon the news, my mind immediately announced, “That’s it, Irina, you have no chance of ever getting a position there. You shouldn’t even try.” I absorbed those statements as the truth without realizing they were a product of the scarcity mind-set: a belief system that considers opportunities, money, success and so on to be limited in nature. In line with those core beliefs, my friend’s new job meant fewer options for me, which, in hindsight, was a silly conclusion.

If you ever face similar circumstances, I recommend you try out the abundance mind-set that assumes there are enough resources for everyone to share. With that alternative worldview, my response to my friend’s luck would be, “Irina, great news! You will be next, and your friend could be the one to help you get your foot in the door.” The same situation — vastly different outcomes.

Using social comparison during the job search is tempting, because it can uncover valuable data to help you outrun the competition. However, we should consider that this approach is likely to generate incomplete data sets and biased opinions, because we never know what really happens in the minds and lives of others. In addition, what works for one person doesn’t guarantee it will work for you, because each person’s life is filled with distinct experiences and skills.

Owning your authentic story is what ultimately leads to the best employment match and also greater job satisfaction. Thus, my last piece of advice is to cultivate your inner truth and don’t forget to compare apples to apples, not apples to elephants, even if the elephants would not mind eating them for breakfast.

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