Our Culture of Comparison is Making Us Petty

One of Ted Talks' MVPs, Simon Sinek, tells us why being an alpha won't make us happy.
July 3, 2017, 2:00pm
TED Talks

"What literature do you suggest I read to be a part of the movement?" one Facebook Live commenter asked during last week's Tonic Talk in New York.

"You don't need literature," Simon Sinek responded. "You need to take care of your friends. Commit yourself to being the leader you wish you had. I write about it. Other people write about it too. If you want to read that stuff, great. But you don't have to read anything."


Ironically for Sinek—who's an author, motivational speaker and marketing consultant—talk is cheap. Text is cheap, too. Basically, anything but pure presence and human connection just mucks up our swiftest path to sustainable happiness. In his TED Talk (the third most watched of all time, jussayin') Sinek breaks down what it means to be a leader, which to him means "going first" versus "taking charge." Deep meaningful relationships and success, he says, are intrinsically intertwined.

Mindfulness expert Dhani Oks moderated the event, facilitating a conversation with Sinek that linked his theory to what the famed 75-year Harvard happiness study showed: that when all is said and done, our relationships—not cash, status or social media fame—are paramount.

Tell us about oxytocin and why you're such a big fan of it.
Oxytocin is one of four chemicals inside our bodies responsible for the feelings of happiness, joy, success, trust, and a lot of the good feelings we get. Endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin basically can be pointed to for all the good things we feel. It's not that I'm more of a fan of oxytocin than the others…

But you bring it up a lot.
It's about balance. You want to have the chemicals fire for the right reasons and oxytocin [causes] the feeling that we get when we spend time with our friends. It's the really nice feeling we get when someone hugs us, sort of a deep long hug [that] makes us feel good.


There are healthy ways to get it. There are also unhealthy ways that don't last. But the healthy ways to get it, we want to promote. And unfortunately, in this modern digital world, we're actually making it more difficult sometimes to have that feeling created.

You just had an interview go pretty viral—about your theories on the millennial generation. It hinges on this idea that we used to be more oxytocin- and serotonin- based…and we've transitioned into this very quick fix dopamine- and endorphin-based society where we want instant gratification.
It's not that these things only affect millennials. They affect every generation and every generation is susceptible to the addictive qualities of social media and cell phones. It's that millennials are the first generation to come of age in a time when social media, cell phones, and the like are ubiquitous. That's what makes it significant to talk about these things relative to millennials, is that they are not unique in the addictive qualities by any stretch of the imagination. It's true, we sometimes trade in the time that it takes to build a real relationship for the real quick hit.

And this is more than just oxytocin. [It's about] so many feelings of self-worth. For example, what can happen too often—especially with younger kids—they count how many followers they have, how many likes they get. Someone was telling me of a study they read, that for children the amount of pictures they'll take for a selfie to post on social media is 150—to get one. So the question is what do they see in those 149 that made them feel bad about themselves? What were they rejecting? Or if you don't get enough likes, you physically take it down… I'm not anti- these things but the question I raise is "are they out of balance?"


One of your central theories—what your TED Talk really introduced—was your 'golden circle.' Can you elaborate on that theory for those who don't know it yet?
I discovered that every single organization on the planet—even our own careers—always function on the same three levels: what we do, how we do it, and why we do it. Everybody knows what they do, the products we sell, the job we do. Some people know how they do it; these are the things we write in our resumes. These are the things that think make us stand out from the crowd. But very few people and fewer organizations can clearly articulate why they do what they do. And by why I don't mean to make money or to accomplish the goal, those are results.

What is the purpose, what is the cause, what is the belief that drives everything you do? And the amazing thing is that this is not my opinion; this is actually grounded in the biology of human decision making our brains are actually broken into three major levels that correspond with that model.

You write a lot about comparison, and how we as a culture are constantly comparing ourselves to other people. You even mention an interesting study about the $400,000 versus the million dollar house.
We can't help ourselves, you know we're always comparing ourselves to each other. There was this crazy study that was done—basically what they did was they offered a $400,000 house, free, on a block where all the other houses were $100,000, or a million dollar house on a block where all the other houses were 4 million dollars.


The vast majority—like 65 percent—chose the $400,000 dollar house, which is crazy because you know we want to be the big man on campus. It's an alpha thing. We try and present ourselves as alphas because it comes with certain perks and benefits in our society, so we're doing comparative things all the time.

One skill in particular that you've mentioned is around the topic of ghosting and the impact of people nowadays who can't have difficult conversations that could potentially upset another person.
We've become a confrontation-averse society because we can actually avoid people, especially when most of their interaction is digital. When we choose to ghost someone, and I'm not talking about one date—you hear these relationships of seven months, eight months, and somebody wants to break up and they just ghost the other person. Think about the receiving end of that.

There's trauma that we are creating that's the equivalent of a car accident because the first thing we do is panic, like, "are they okay?" That is what we are creating in the other person's life and then when they reach out and they can't get a hold of you, panic is what ensues. Then, they see that we're alive and well and interacting with other people online, now they think it's they and they can't resolve it.

I would rather two people have a fight, yell and scream at each other, get whatever they want to say out, have some closure, and move on with your lives, it doesn't mean that there won't be pain, but we don't literally have to traumatize someone in the process. It's so selfish and cowardly, but the other problem is that we're not teaching the skills of confrontation or as we like to say care-frontation. Which is, it's a skill, it's a learnable, practical, teachable skill. We can learn how to have difficult conversations.

And you learn the skill of actually dealing with it.
And you learn the skill. It doesn't mean it's good or easy. It means it's better than causing trauma especially if you could be on the receiving end of that trauma next time.

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