Comparison is the Thief of Joy

By Jimmy Turner, MD
The Physician Philosopher

When your life happens in three to four year epochs until your early to mid thirties, happiness and contentment can be hard to find when everything is said and done.  After you finish training, that’s it.  There really isn’t another “step” in the same way there used to be when we looked forward to finishing undergrad, medical school, residency, and then fellowship. Ironically, your unhappiness can peak after finishing training, because – as Teddy Roosevelt famously said – “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

In private practice, after you become a board-certified partner, that’s it.  You are currently living the dream.  Until you look around at what other people are doing with their money.  Comparisons can steal your joy.

In addition to this, I would argue that comparisons not only steal your joy.  They have the potential to catalyze your road to burnout.  It’s another factor that can steal your identity, increase financial stress, and worsen your situation.

Climbing the Ranks

It’s an unfortunate consequence of hanging around other people.  Because we mirror and brain-couple with other people, we can often assume characteristics from other people, including their goals.

For example, in academic medicine, it is an expectation that your job after finishing is to climb the academic ladder.  You might start as a clinical instructor until you receive your full board certification.  That will allow you to become an assistant professor.  Hopefully, after some diligent work, you will have tackled the standard for applying for promotion to the rank of associate professor.

With the promotion comes additional money, possibly some more vacation, and more notoriety within the institution.  The same phenomenon happens in corporate America.

This all sounds well and good.  Unless, of course, progressing through the ranks is not one of your major goals.  Maybe you only want to research things you are passionate about, and you don’t want to publish at a rate that your hospital requires for promotion.  Perhaps you don’t want to do research at all.  Many people go into academia because they love teaching and practicing clinical medicine.

Yet, when we look at our current station and compare it to others, it can steal our joy.  Will we be okay staying at an assistant professor rank 20 years later when our colleagues are progressing up the ladder?

Cars, Houses, and the Lot

Of course, this phenomenon is not unique to academic medicine.  It is human to compare your current situation to that of others around you.  Maybe it involves comparing houses, cars, outfits, your children’s education, purses, or work out bikes.

In fact, comparisons are the reason that many doctors end up poor.  They feel like they need to keep up with the Dr. Joneses around them who have a lot of stuff (but usually lack a lot of wealth).  There are certain societal and personal expectations that we have for living the Doctor’s Life.

Whether it’s the number of publications, a Tesla, Peloton, fancy watch, McMansion, private school, or the number of page views on your blog – comparisons can make you feel like you and your family are lacking.

Finding contentment is key, but it can prove challenging when we are surrounded by people who have lavish spending habits.  Unless you are very clear on your goals.

Setting Your Own Goals

The answer to avoiding comparison stealing your joy is two-fold.

First, we must determine our life goals for ourselves.  We should not depend on other people to set them for us, though seeking wise-council here will prove helpful.   The point is that going through the motions that others expect of you can lead to a lot of discontentment.  Instead, you should spend some time figuring out what is important to you in this life.  Then, you should design a life to chase after it.

Second, your happiness and contentment should be determined based on your goals.  Not someone else’s.  This can only be done, though, when you are crystal clear on your purpose and passion.  When this happens, your temptation to continually compare yourself to others will begin to dissipate.

Even after going through this exercise, you’ll find that one other key piece is required – knowing when to say yes or no to something.

Hell Yes Policy, The Anti-Thief of Joy

After sitting down with my wife and discussing what is important to us, I realized that I am involved in a lot of things that are not helping us work towards our goals.  This included unnecessary committees,  projects, and working more than I want.

All of this was created by a desire to live up to other people’s expectations for me.  I was previously known for having a drive and determination to get stuff done.  It seemed like I had an infinite amount of time and energy.  In the end, this might have been my Grave’s disease.  Who knows?

The point is that I was following someone else’s design.

The answer was to institute a Hell Yes Policy where I said no to absolutely everything that I wasn’t so passionate about that it made me say, “Hell Yes!”  In other words, I only say yes to things that define my purpose and passion – which includes supporting my wife, being there for our three kids, educating future physicians, and practicing regional anesthesia.

Take Home: Avoiding “Comparison is the Thief of Joy”

Comparison does not have to be the thief of your joy.

Once you crystallize your goals, base your contentment on those goals (and not the goals of others), and institute a Hell Yes Policy – you will find that you are able to find contentment even when you seemingly have “less”.

Of course, this is a round about way to encourage you to be happy with one of the key steps in reaching financial independence – frugality.

This contentment with less has proven to be a super power for many who have found early financial independence.  And, financial independence is the escape hatch to physician burnout.

Today, sit down and design your life.  Be intentional.  Don’t let other people dictate the direction of your career and life.

Have you created a specific list of your goals?  Are you working towards them, or towards someone else’s?  How did you get on the right track?  Leave a comment below.



  1. Xrayvsn

    It really is hard to be isolated from other people’s trappings of success. Social media has basically put everyone’s highlight reel front and center and you are constantly bombarded with photos of their latest exploits.

    Some of it can truly be a facade (there are Instagrammers for example that actually rent out planes/cars, etc just for the perfect shot and to create a false look of wealth).

    I was on in the academic track when I first graduated, got to associate professor rank. I was never concerned with rising up further and left for the private practice world shortly after.

    It is funny you should mention it but in the beginning it was hard not to get wrapped up in statistics for my blog. When I first started out it was my measuring stick to see how I was doing among my peers and if it was worth continuing. After awhile it was more important that I was doing it because I liked it and it was the commenting and interacting with my readers more than stats that brought me joy.

    • ThePhysicianPhilosopher

      It can be tough. It feels like their are metrics everywhere. whether it is pictures on Facebook or page views on WordPress, we must set our own goals.

  2. IM-PCP

    Not the point of your post, but I found that 3-4 years out of training, in private practice, I started to think “is this it? Go to the same office, work with the same people, every day?” At that point, the key aphorism might have been “Variety is the Spice of Life.” I found a job that suited me better.

    Years later, as I deal with others getting more gold stars and shiny toys, it’s true that sometimes I look at their prizes with longing. But for me, I still find that “doing something else” is my main treat. With some financial security in place, I have cut back a smidge on my clinical time, and am trying to figure out what else I want to do with my life. I am still a work-in-progress.

    • ThePhysicianPhilosopher

      I think I will always be a work in progress. I hope I am anyway. I never want to come across as someone who has it all figured out.

      I’ll probably follow a similar path when allowed to pursue part time work, or at least an FTE reduction for things I am passionate about. Anything worth doing takes time. And it just doesn’t seem like there is enough of it right now.

  3. NightNightDoc

    I think this is a really great reminder. There’s a dangerous line between following someone’s advise and comparing yourself to them. I greatly appreciate the reminder to reflect on one’s goals.

    Yes, becoming FI is a wonderful thing and allows folks to breathe. However, this can become a comparison goal within itself. Sure the FIRE community is a good thing as long as it doesn’t cause you to burnout by comparison.

    It’s a good reminder that whether it’s finances or life goals, they are personal. Seeking contentment and experiencing happiness should occur when achieving your goals.

    Thank you for encouragement along the way!

    • ThePhysicianPhilosopher

      Thanks, night night doc. Making our own goals is the key. And then comparing our lives to those goals (and not to others) is what can help produce contentment. Otherwise, we chase after other people and end up miserable.

  4. Brent Lacey

    “Keeping up with the Joneses” has worsened tenfold since the Joneses got on Facebook and Instagram. Trying hard to keep your life “Pinterest-perfect” is a loser’s game. I do financial coaching on the “Joneses” all the time, and they’re broke! We HAVE to stop comparing ourselves to other people, especially as providers. It’s destructive, divisive, and distracts from the business of actually taking care of ourselves and our families. Thanks for the perspective!

    • ThePhysicianPhilosopher

      Agreed. That is one reason I basically have zero personal social media. Got tired of people pretending their lives are perfect. I know mine isn’t. But I’m okay with living in the real.


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