Carter Cast on the “Drama of Comparative Living”

My friend, Carter Cast, gave a wonderful talk to a large group of Fortune 500 executives and non-profit leaders. I highly recommend everyone reading this to take this to heart given where Carter comes from. Carter has had a career unmatched by most I know. Starting as one of the star swimmers on Stanford's national championship team, he has progressed through a host of successes ranging from being employee 4 (CMO) at Blue Nile, defining its successful launch strategy to being the CMO of eBay to CEO of (growing it from less than $100m to several billion). On top of this, he is one of the most down to earth, humble people you'll meet and his former lieutenants will tell you how engaged he was in their development. Enjoy…

"For much of my adult life, a subtle form of fear has been my constant companion.  Eventually, I found myself in the position where I could no longer attempt to ignore it. It had sufficiently eroded my health that I was forced to confront it.

From my own personal experience, (and this is by no means an academic definition) fear can be grouped in three areas of descending intensity: 1) the anticipation of direct danger to one’s being—the guy in the alley coming my way, to fight or give flight; 2) the fear that something I have will be taken away—my house, my job, my loved ones. (In this category, the Buddhist preaching of acceptance of life’s impermanence has helped me.) 3) The feeling that I am not enough, that I don’t measure up to some ever-moving standard of worthiness. This last category of fear is the one I will discuss tonight.

In this categorization, there exists a kind of anxiety gap between what is and what we think should be. “I should have a PhD like Rob Wolcott.” “I deserve to be as wealthy as Ben Elowitz, because I was instrumental in building the Blue Nile business.” This is the drama of comparative living. Bertrand Russell, in The Conquest of Happiness, calls it “worry fatigue.” He says, “Envy is a form of vice which consists of seeing things never in themselves, but only in their relations.” He had a great example: “Napoleon envied Caesar; Caesar envied Alexander; Alexander I daresay envied Hercules, who didn’t exist.”

I am fairly certain that the destructive emotion of envy has increased in the age in which we are living. Amidst all of the opulence we not face the alarming gap between the have and the have-nots, we now also have the ability, due to the opening up of the world through technology, to compare ourselves to others with just a few keystrokes. We all do this. Everyone in this room has done it. How many of us have gone on Zillow or another real estate site to check out the value of our neighbor’s house? How many of us, when perusing Facebook, have seen that one of our friends just dined with someone fancy, dined somewhere fancy or become downright fancy themselves? And then and felt…envious. Today we have the dubious “opportunity” to gauge our progress relative to just about everyone with an Internet connection. And we can gauge the progress of those without one too. Meet your new neighbor, commit to memory his name, and Google the guy when you get home…Only a few hundred years ago, we compared ourselves to the work product of the one other blacksmith in our village. Now we compare our work to all the blacksmiths in all the villages throughout the land…If our values aren’t strong and properly reinforced, we will feel envious. And if we don’t pay attention to this destructive emotion, it can spin out of control and turn into a deep-set fear that we just aren’t good enough.

If you think about it, this comparative frame of reference should only matter when we’re competing in a zero-sum situation. He gets it, I don’t. There’s a winner and a loser. Yet most of the situations we find ourselves in, on a daily basis, do not involve zero-sum outcomes. In most of our life experiences, we find ourselves working with others in situations where we all can benefit. Even in very complex negotiations, creative solutions exist that expand the pie and leave plenty of slices for everyone.

So in reality, in the vast majority of the many millions of discrete moments that make up our lives, we have the ability to choose not to participate in the drama of comparative living.  And that is my epiphany: that through awareness and discipline, I can choose to see things not in their relation to others, but only in their relation to myself—in relation to my own spiritual and intellectual development. Am I increasing in my capacity to show compassion to others? Am I increasing my business skills in order to be more useful to others? Now, at night, I reflect and remind myself that my development as a human being is relative to no one else, just myself and where I was at a prior state of development.

Everyone in this room is in the bonus scoring round of life. We’ve taken the tests and passed. We’ve auditioned and gotten the gig. We’ve made it—the degree, the car, the house. We have respect. Yet the only respect we really need is our own. We can choose keep trying to make it, over and over again, or we can realize we don’t have to live our lives in pursuit mode. We don’t have to keep trying to keep up with the beat of an imaginary metronome. We can say, “I am enough.” As Thomas Merton said, “We have what we seek.” Harmony, for me, lies in this thought."