One of the things that really gets under my skin is when someone “shoulds” on me. You know what I mean, right? It’s when you’re talking with someone and they say, “Oh, you should do this,” or “You should do that.”
We’re all guilty of “shoulding” on others but there are two obvious problems that can arise from it. First, when a suggestion is made in the form of a “should” statement, it insinuates that the “shoulder” knows what’s best for the “shouldee” and that the “shoulder” has the right to tell the “shouldee” what to do. Second, the process can cause the “shouldee” to make guilt-driven comparisons where the “shouldee” becomes more concerned with what others think than feeling confident in their own motives and behaviors.
This comparison process is what’s sometimes called, “Keeping up with the Joneses.” It is a never-ending-hamster-wheel exercise to nowhere and what’s worse, we may ultimately discover that we’ve been trying to keep up with the wrong Joneses.
When I first became a professional speaker—meaning when I got money for talking—I received a lot of advice from more experienced speakers. I was told, “You should raise your fee,” and “You should offer at least a dozen topics,” and “You should never negotiate your fee,” and “You should always put your picture on your business card.”
Whenever I heard these things, I questioned my motives and started comparing myself to other speakers. I thought, Maybe I’m undervaluing my presentations. Maybe the few topics I offer are limiting my opportunities. Maybe I should never work for less than my full fee. And, maybe I should not only have my photo on my business card, but I should put it on both sides.
But you know what? None of these strategies worked for me. When I raised my fee too much, my calendar was empty. When I tried to focus on too many topics, I diluted all of them. And when I wasn’t flexible with my fee, I didn’t get to work with the clients I actually liked. However, when it came to my business card, I never considered putting my photo on either side because I feared that my striking good looks would lead to more work than I could handle.
You see, the Joneses I was trying to keep up with were not the Joneses I wanted to be. Those Joneses were more interested in pursuing the CEOs of Fortune 100 companies while I wanted to work with the directors of social services agencies. They stayed at the Ritz while I was perfectly happy at the Courtyard. And they drove sports cars with all the amenities while I drove a Subaru with all-wheel drive. The allure of their success was seductive but after a few years, I realized that this path was not a good fit for me—and that I was trying to keep up with the wrong Joneses. Once I understood this, I adjusted my model so that my business goals and my personal interests were in alignment. Interestingly, this led to greater success in both.
I discovered a similar pattern with my professional development process. Early in my career, I attended a lot of educational conferences while also reading all the popular books on business and personal development. Because, that is what entrepreneurs were supposed to do. After a while, I realized that I was hearing the same messages presented over and over—they were just labeled differently. The Seven Steps became the Four Cornerstones which became the Five Easy Pieces. Same principles, different titles.
After a while, I stopped attending so many conferences and eliminated most business and self-improvement books from my reading list. Now, I attend a conference once in a while and the books I like to read are often autobiographies or they focus on mindfulness and cooking. So, rather than learning the seven steps to success from a famous CEO, I try to discern life and business lessons from meditation experts, rock stars, comedians, and chefs. I find that these books are more interesting to read and the lessons are just as valuable.
So, do I think you ought to do what I did? Absolutely not. But what you “should” do (couldn’t resist) is to consider if the Joneses you’re trying to keep up with are the right ones for you.
Do you feel pressure to meet the expectations of others? Are the people who expect things of you the kind of people you aspire to be? Is there a part of you that feels unexplored or unexpressed? Is there a gap between where you are and where you want to be? If so, maybe you’ve gotten caught up in a comparison cycle trying to keep up with the wrong Joneses.
One way we can all explore this a bit more is to think about those people who share our values, our interests, and our aspirations. We can pay attention to how they approach life and work, and rather than compare our own life to theirs, consider how their underlying principles might apply to us. I’ve seen so many so-called successful people who are not that happy and have actually damaged important personal relationships on their way to success. When we do this, we may find short-term, materialistic success but ultimately end up with long-term discontent.
Maybe, you aspire to be a Bill Gates, a Serena Williams, a Jimmy Carter, or a Mother Theresa. Whoever you aspire to be, make sure you’re following their example—for the right reasons. Not because you should, but because it aligns with who you are.
Then, perhaps, you’re be keeping up with the right Joneses.