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Compare, Carefully

Published 5/2/2022

Comparison is a powerful tool that humans are exceedingly good at wielding. However, as with any powerful tool, it can easily be misused to damaging effect.

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
Hey there, you're listening to Developer Tea. My name is Jonathan Cutrell. In recent episodes of this show, we've talked about the unique, incredible capacity for us as humans to compare things. This capacity is so powerful that humans can even compare things that are distantly related. You can compare the feeling that you get when you taste a particular food to the feeling you get when you perform a particular activity. In this way, we have strange phrases like this ice cream tastes like my childhood. And part of the reason for this is because our brains are really effective at making connections. And those connections when we revisit them, they fire up those different parts of our brain. We can see similarities because there's pathways that are well established from things that are similar to that thing. Our brains are recognizing patterns and those pathways light up. This is a very non-scientific way of describing a very complex thing that we really don't even fully understand yet. But with all of that power, the ability to compare, which we should take advantage of, there also comes some risk, some downside. That's what we're going to talk about in today's episode. But first, let's talk briefly about today's sponsor. This episode brought to you by Square. There are millions of sellers across the globe using Square to run every aspect of their business. And where there are millions of anything, there's an opportunity for you. This is software engineer to make something for them. Many of those sellers are looking for customized solutions that are deeply connected and easy to use. And this is where you come in. You can grow your business as an engineer by extending or integrating with Square using free APIs and SDKs to build tools for sellers. To be very clear, Square is making those APIs and SDKs. Go and check it out. Head over to developertea.com slash square to get started today. That's developertea.com slash square. Thanks again to Square for there's a point. The brains have the ability to compare things, especially we have the unique capacity, the almost kind of unavoidable tendency to compare people. We compare ourselves to others very often. There's two kind of pit holes that we're going to talk about. This is the first one. Comparing ourselves to others can lead us to unnecessarily draw conclusions about our situation that are not necessarily relevant or helpful or even true to begin with. We might draw comparisons that we believe somebody else is better at their job than us or maybe they are luckier than us. Maybe as a result, we might begin to believe that we are unlucky or that we're not as smart as we once thought we were. We don't have the capacity to do the things that we once thought we could. There's all kinds of conclusions that we could easily make by walking down this comparison pathway. But in almost every single case where you're trying to compare yourself to another person, the outcome is going to be unproductive and almost certainly incomprehensive. You're not going to have the whole picture. And this should be obvious to us as to why we don't see everything that's going on in another person's life. We often don't see the failures that other people have. One thing that we're really good at doing as humans is hiding our failures, especially to the view of other people, to the view of outsiders. We might pick a very limited number of axes on which to measure whether or not that person is more successful than we are. But there is no effective way to comprehensively compare your life to another person's. Now this is not to say that you gain nothing by looking at other people in their lives or the things that they've learned, the processes they have walked through. Of course you do. Otherwise we wouldn't recommend on this show. And you wouldn't hear it from pretty much everybody who is successful that you should seek the help of mentors, get outside input into your life, try to understand and learn from other people. Of course those things are useful. But the caution that I recommend here is that you avoid general conclusions about your lot in life, about your identity or your capacity. All of these things that are judgment calls, right? These are judgment calls rather than tactical learnings, specific situational advice. Notice there's a subtle difference here. If you look at the way that somebody handles a situation that's a different kind of comparison, right? It's a different kind of learning mode than if you were to look at them and measure the gap between where they are and where you are on some arbitrary number of indicators. And there's so many reasons why this is a dangerous road to walk down. But use this as your guide. If you're trying to measure the gap as to how much more successful somebody is, right? Rather than trying to change your own behavior, there's the critical thing. If you're looking to someone to learn in order to change your behavior in order to make a decision, a more informed decision. If you're looking for that, that's advice. But if you're comparing in order to size yourself up, right? In order to label yourself versus labeling somebody else, that's a dangerous path to walk because you don't have a comprehensive picture. Now, the tricky thing is we believe we do have a comprehensive picture once again because humans are very good at comparing. But there is a limit. We're good at comparing, but often we can't compare comprehensively because we simply don't have access to that information. More fundamentally, and this leads us into our second pit hole that I want to kind of warn you about, the comparison that we're trying to make is simply a false comparison. When you have a good comparison, you're starting from some shared state. It's very difficult to compare, of course, apples to oranges. We hear this all the time. But we might imagine that because we are both human or because we both have the same job title that we have some shared state, the truth is that humans are so distinctly unique from each other in their experiences and fundamentally at their physical level that we're trying to compare humans as if they are the same, but they're not. This is a trick that our brain plays on us, also not just with humans. We have a false comparison. This is where we trick ourselves into believing that two things are somehow orthogonal. That's a fancy word for saying they have some basic shared state and we're comparing them on their differences. You can, indeed, compare apples to oranges based on the core shared trait of being a fruit. But often, we try to compare two objects or two, very often, this happens with options that we're trying to choose between as if both of those options are near each other. We're comparing pros and cons between them. One option may be so drastically different from another option that it makes the comparison invalid. And yet we push forward with the comparison because of what we were talking about at the very beginning of the episode. Our brains are so good at drawing conclusions about things that are heavily disparate. In other words, we can compare two options. We could compare an apple to, let's say, a brownie on the basis that they're both food and we're trying to pick something to eat. The problem is that often we have a fundamental difference in what we're trying to have as an outcome versus what we've allowed as an input. In other words, maybe your goal is to pick a healthy snack. And now you're choosing between an apple and a brownie, recognizing that this metaphor is getting a little bit stretched here. It's very possible for our brains to make the leap and try to find a way to compare these options as if they truly are both on the table. When we all know that the only option on the table in that case would be an apple. This can lead us down the path of doing some mental gymnastics to justify decisions that we otherwise would never be trying to make. In other words, trying to find ways that a brownie could actually be a healthy snack. But this also happens when we try to compare things like different tooling. For example, let's say you had a very simple URL routing package, something like Express, and you're trying to compare it to a totally different tool and a totally different language that does vastly more like Rails. These two tools have completely different use cases in the average case. And in order to even begin to compare these, you'd have to identify the use case that you're actually trying to accomplish. The pitfall I'm warning you about is the tendency to imagine that one of these could be better than the other as if they were both on the same playing field. More often than not, the correct language we should be thinking about when we're comparing things is how different they are. Trying to coerce two things that are quite simply at their core different is probably not a useful exercise. However, if we bring a use case to the table, then we can begin to measure things against the use case. How well does something that I'm choosing actually match against the use case? How well does this person that I'm interviewing, instead of comparing them to another person that I've interviewed and trying to equalize them on some metric? How well do they match what we're looking for? Ultimately, we should be aware of the convincing nature of our comparisons, particularly how we become self-convents by the information that we generate when we compare. Thanks so much for listening to today's episode of Developer Teaa. I hope you enjoyed this episode. If you want to build tools for millions of sellers around the world, head over to developertea.com slash square today to get started with their SDKs and APIs, totally free developertea.com slash square. If you enjoyed this episode and you want to join a community of engineers who are like you, like minded, trying to grow, trying to become better at what they do, and also become better people in the process, head over to developertea.com slash discord today. Of course, as with every podcast that you already listened to, the best things that you can do to keep this podcast up and running, leave a review and iTunes and subscribe. These two actions help other people find the show and it helps you remember when we release a new episode, which happens currently on a schedule of two times a week. Thanks so much for listening and until next time, enjoy your tea.