We can’t all be above average

If you ask one hundred people how good a driver they are, the majority will say they are above average. Which makes no sense. We can’t all be above average.

This observation (which I’m sure has been tested and given a proper name that I don’t know) is just a micro instance of a macro pattern: we overestimate our own abilities, and underestimate other’s.

That applies to how we view our own character, not just skills like driving. It manifests itself in the belief that we are better than everyone else. That we are kinder, more compassionate, wiser, smarter, more patient, more generous, more humble, more curious, and more intellectually and physically courageous than the people around us. Which, as you will probably agree, is bullshit. Someone has to be worse at all these things. (Just not you or I, right?)

While I was thinking about this, I first thought it would be a good idea to propose the opposite. That instead we deliberately underestimate ourselves and overestimate others. But there’s not much wisdom, or utility, in false modesty. Pretending to be less than you are is almost as dumb as thinking you’re more than you are.

Which leads to my next suggestion: practise seeing yourself exactly as you are. Assess how good a driver you are, how kind you are, how curious you are, and accept the answers. If you’re worse than average at something, accept it. If you’re better than average, accept it. But there’s a problem with this too. Us humans aren’t known for our ability to objectively and accurately measure our own capacities. It takes more than the typical human lifespan, and more than the typical human, to crack the Western philosophic dictum and know thyself.

So if we can’t see ourselves as better, worse, or exactly as we are, what can we do? Here’s a suggestion: maybe we should stop comparing ourselves to others, and others to everyone else. 

I get it. Comparison is a useful tool. We can use it to mitigate our weaknesses and reinforce our strengths. What do you think competitive sport and business is about? It’s about being better than everyone else at what you do. And one way you can achieve that objective is via rigorous and consistent comparison to your competitors. But such a mindset shouldn’t apply to our personal lives.

In our personal lives, I think we’d all benefit if we stopped comparing ourselves. If the meek stopped placing everyone above themselves, and the arrogant stopped building their pyramid of ego atop negative opinions of other people’s worth, wouldn’t we be better off? If we, as people who consider ourselves neither meek nor arrogant, stopped trying to place ourselves in the hierarchy of human goodness and just focused on being better people than we were yesterday, wouldn’t the world change for the better? I think so.