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Why the grass is always greener on the other side

We are constantly peering over fences and into windows. The lives of others fascinate us. We have a lifelong obsession with knowing what they are doing; how they do it; what we need to copy from them.

What are they wearing? Where do they get that stuff? How do they look so effortlessly stylish? I feel shabby now. I wonder what that ensemble costs? Where are their kids schooling? Where do they get that kind of money? I wonder what the secret is? Let me keep looking, so I can figure it out…

Way too many of us spend entire lifetimes peering over the fence at the neighbour’s garden, wondering why the grass is always greener on the other side. We do this both literally and metaphorically: in our gardens, but also in our businesses, social circles and clubs. Why do they look better than us?

What do we think we will learn from all this obsessive gazing? Perhaps the secrets of our neighbours, so we can replicate their success. Perhaps a few tips. Perhaps we just gawk in sheer envy, fixated by the sight because our own lives seem so drab and dreary in comparison.

In business this practice has respectable names: benchmarking, and market intelligence. We pay for this stuff. We hire people and go to business school to help us compare ourselves, and to learn from the best. We believe it helps. We forget that those we are benchmarking against never benchmarked themselves against anyone; and that they never seem to bother to gather any intelligence about us…

And that right there is the point. That’s why the grass is always greener on the other side: because your neighbours never waste any time peering at your garden. If their grass is greener, it’s because they tend to it better. They know what matters.

In my experience, individuals and businesses who make it big the right way – through innovation, application and determination – have something in common: they really aren’t bothered by what others are doing. They form their own ideas; they clarify them over time through trial and error; and they keep going, resolutely, even in adversity.

The rest? Well, they keep peering at everyone else, wondering what the ‘secret’ is. Here’s your answer, voyeurs: that grass didn’t grow itself. Someone thought about the grass; chose it, planted it; nurtured it; gave it time and attention. As opposed to what you’re doing.

We are all given a life, and there is plenty in a life to preoccupy us wholly. We have to build skills, develop expertise, gain wisdom, provide for others, avoid pitfalls. How on earth are you going to do all that in the throes of a morbid obsession with what others are doing?

An entire generation is growing up discussing Kim Kardashian’s new dress and Brad Pitt’s new beard; debating the ins and outs of the latest celebrity divorce; or bitching about so-and-so who thinks she’s so hoity-toity.

What has any of that got to do with your life? You know, life: those precious few days you have been given on this planet with which to do something of meaning, to leave a legacy that matters, to add some value to this world? Or do you just want to fritter it away fascinated by everyone else’s nonsense?

Half the time what you are gazing at is an illusion. Other people look successful, seem contented, appear to be at peace. If you could turn yourself invisible and spend half a day in their homes and businesses you might find that most people are as insecure, unhappy and unfulfilled as anyone else. Most human lives are exactly the same – unless we strive to make them better.

I am always bemused when I do some work with companies that win the “best organization to work for” award. I have almost always found that their own employees are generally amazed they won such an award; are ready to bitch and twitch about their bosses as much as anyone else; and half of them have their CVs ready if the chance to move comes up. And yet employees in competing firms look upon the award-winner with envy, thinking it must be idyllic to work there.

You have your garden right there under your feet. Pay attention to it, tend to it, give it nourishment, try something different. It will grow beautifully, without you ever needing to walk to the fence. The answer is on your side, not the other side.

(Sunday Nation, 19 June 2016)

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