How Do You Interact With People More Successful Than You?

I’m fascinated by the question what separates great people from simply good people. One theory I have is how a great person interacts with people more successful them him/her.

If you’re always comparing yourself to others in an apples-to-apples way, you can always feel inferior.

If I want to, I can look around each day and discover:

1. Someone is running a more successful business

2. Someone is dating a prettier woman/man

3. Someone is more famous than me

4. Someone has done more at an earlier age than you – my friend David is starting his PhD at MIT at age 14 and I have several other younger friends who are doing amazing things.

5. Someone will sell way, way more books than I will

6. Someone has more blog readers than I do

There are two ways I can respond to this. One is to feel envy, jealously, resentment, and drag my own self-worth down. I’ve met people who respond this way to me at any successes I’ve had. The other response is to encourage their successes, help them be all they can be, and realize that as you help them you are helping yourself. These people tend to be self-confident and fun.

Finding the balance between comparing yourself just enough to find competitive motivation versus comparing yourself all the time to feel inferior (or, superior) is difficult. Great people do it well. I’m trying to do this better.

8 comments on “How Do You Interact With People More Successful Than You?
  • You are absolutely correct. That’s what truly makes a leader.

    But I would say to not even compare yourself at all. Doing that would be like buying into the reality of advertisements: they’re models that you can follow but that nobody will ever come to fully realize. All of us have a number of interesting things going on in our lives, and we should always be grateful for that. Bide your time well and remember that we all have our own rate and pace of accomplishing things.

    I’m currently 23 now, and I feel privileged for being able to read the blog of someone who has accomplished so much at an early age. Your blog truly enriches my life.

    And as you said, all around us, there are examples of that. I am a filmmaker and my first movie will come out in 2009. In India, there’s a 10-year-old who has directed more than 50 feature films! While others may feel jealous or blame their circumstances, my mind doesn’t even register that there should be feelings of envy.

    This is something that took me time to discover: for many years I didn’t notice that many of my so-called friends were secretly harboring resentement and envy for my successes. Of course, my best friends are the ones who wished me always the best, who guided me when I couldn’t otherwise, and who have now seeked to emulate me in ways that are beneficial to them.

    We’re wired to want a lot of things, but we shouldn’t covet what other people have. That is why all human interaction, philosophy, society, and religion talk about that one. There’s even an area in our brain – the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (for those who want to know)- that supresses our selfish urges and recognizes that to each his own.

    Become better for your own self, not because you want to be like others. If you need someone else to motivate you, you will always be extrinsically motivated, and that’s risky.

    While I’m sure that the success models that surround us invariably influence us, focusing on what you don’t have will only make you use your energy in counterproductive ways. By all means, continue to help others because this is a universe based on karma (which has been proven scientifically by John Nash’s equilibrium theorem).

    Great post Ben! It unleashed some good thinking for me, and reminded me of the battles I have won to become who I am today.

  • The other key point to remember is that the definition of success is personal, not universal.

    As long as I feel that I’m successful, and I realize that it’s not a zero-sum game, it shouldn’t matter whether the person I interact with is richer or poorer (other than determining who’s going to pick up the check for lunch).

  • I think one tends to outgrow this sort of envy with age. Although I’m poor, I’m quite happy with my life at the moment because it’s ideal for me in many ways–it includes service to others, opportunities for intellectual enrichment and learning, and enough money to get by. I used to be extremely competitive academically. A long time ago, I took pride in my ACT and GRE scores and my class standing. But after you earn all those great grades and amazing scores, you realize that they mean nothing after you graduate. Taking a course in “Oppressed Peoples” was meaningful because it led me to join Amnesty International. Watching Ed Bradley talk about the killing fields in Cambodia was meaningful, because that led me to contribute to the American Friends Service Committee. Being the best, smartest, and most successful is irrelevant.

  • But what is success? For some it may be owning a home, while for others it may be helping a crack-addict overcome his addiction. It’s all relative. One may think you’re successful because you have a car, while others would think you’re sucessful because you have food to eat everyday! Get off your horse and put things into perspective to really get an idea of what success is.

  • How, exactly, does the Nash equilibrium prove karma? If anything, it proves how self-interest motivates predictable outcomes in strategic interactions.

  • Several years ago, before I had an assistant to help me cope with email, I had a similar problem. Each time my newsletter went out, I’ d receive advertising blurb from an idiot marketer. I wrote to him and politely told him that subscribing to my newsletter didn’ t give him the right to send me marketing material. He argued that it did. We corresponded for awhile, neither willing to see the other person’ s point of view. I told him I’ d never ever buy any of his products, and I unsubscribed him. Six or seven…

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