April 24, 2014

The Pitfalls and Power of Comparisons: When We Should [Not] Compare Jobs, Candidates or Anything Else

Recruiting or job hunting, like just about everything else in life, is impossible without comparisons—comparing one thing or person to or with another, usually in order to choose or decide something.

Yet, there are those, including many who are not Zen disciples, who insist that comparisons are corruptions.  Who would believe that and why?

Among them are

  • Taoism founder, Lao Tzu: “When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you.”
  • NY Giant, Willie Mays: “I don’t compare ’em, I just catch ’em.”
  • “Star Wars” actor, Mark Hamill: “I don’t think it’s fair to compare Dick Cheney to Vader—it’s unfair to Vader.”
  • The Marquis de Condorcet: “Enjoy your own life without comparing it with that of another.”
  • Surrealist painter, Salvador Dali: “The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot.”
  • Early feminist and female writer, George Eliot: “Is it not rather what we expect in men, that they should have numerous strands of experience lying side by side and never compare them with each other?”
  • Lenny Kravitz, rock star: “Every night is different; you never know what it’s going to be like. I remember every night. I don’t like to compare them.”
  • Tim Roth: “How would you compare Polanski or Kubrick? I try not to do any comparisons.”
  • Shirley Williams: “We really shouldn’t be running education like a supermarket where you compare prices.”

How can we reconcile the obvious, practical or poetic [“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”] need or instinct to compare and choose things with critiques of doing that?

Or, at least shouldn’t we ask when is it that we should yield to or resist the temptation or pressure to compare—even when it seems we cannot?

The Comparison Instinct

Comparing is not only a practical necessity. It’s also a cognitive, virtually hardwired necessity, like our usually prevailing survival instinct, which it serves, of brain functioning, since the two most important things we notice about any two things are whether they are similar or different.

This is a direct consequence of the fact that our brains have an innate and sophisticated capacity for “stimulus discrimination”—distinguishing two things from each other and “stimulus generalization”—lumping two things together under the same category.

For example, looking at a square and a triangle, we will either note they are similar, in being polygons with sides and angles, or note they are different, in the number of angles they have [3 vs. 4] .

Performing that discrimination or generalization presupposes comparison. It comes with our brain hardware and operating manual. The question is, when can or should it be over-ridden?

So how can a recruiter, job seeker or Zen master avoid making comparisons, despite their shortcomings? Why and when should they even try?

How and Why to Not Compare

As for the first question, if we are hardwired to compare, how can we escape it? After all, isn’t that hypothetical Zen monk, despite his exhortations not to, comparing a life of comparing with a life free of it and choosing the latter on that basis?

The comparison critics, including Zen monks, argue that sunsets, homes, moments, mountains, puppies, flowers, friends, babies, poets, lovers, dinners, jobs and salaries are all diminished and distorted by comparisons—irrespective of whether these are descriptive or evaluative comparisons, i.e., merely an objective noting of similarities and differences in attributes or a judgmental assessment.

For those most opposed, any comparison of things we love or desire with anything else transforms or misrepresents them, and, all too frequently, not for the better, by

  • spoiling our harmonious experiences and things experienced into fodder for aggressive competition
  • comparing “incommensurables”, i.e., things that seemingly cannot [easily or comfortably] be measured or compared by any common yardstick—e.g., if not apples and oranges, then apples and shoelaces, love of your pet and love of your wife.
  • attaching an exchange value to everything we compare
  • invidiously comparing those values, at the expense of whatever is deemed to be worth less
  • using the wrong criteria for comparison
  • distracting and shifting attention from direct, concrete experience to abstract categorizing and judging of similarities and differences
  • focusing on similarities and differences at the expense of essences and existence
  • reducing one thing, person or experience to another, and thereby trivializing it—seen by some as a form of mental laziness or envy
  • elevating that which should not be elevated by favorable comparison
  • testing, measuring, trivializing and otherwise diminishing the value of things by “translating” them into more familiar, even banal, terms, categories, experiences, etc.
  • corrupting the spiritual or metaphysical“one-ness”  of things and being into “two-ness”, by perceiving or evaluating one thing only in terms of another
  • replacing concrete engagement with abstract observation and analysis of similarities and differences.

The hardcore comparison critics would urge us to refrain from or to minimize making comparisons when any of the foregoing take their toll.

Others, less extreme in their stance, urge caution when making comparisons, because in many, even if not all, instances, the comparison is forced, misleading, unnatural, unproductive and, again, diminishing and distorting.

If either faction of anti-comparers is right, caution, if not restraint, is advisable when comparing the attributes or merits of anything or anyone—including jobs and job candidates—and making or forcing choices based on those comparisons.

With these critiques and critics in mind, comparison of one job with/to another or one job candidate with/to another can be examined to determine when and how we should or shouldn’t do it.

1.    After making an employment decision, do not compare your choice with its opportunity cost—i.e., one or more of its forsaken alternatives [as “buyer’s remorse” that spoils satisfaction and erodes confidence].

2.    If you must compare two people or two jobs, be sure to include all relevant aspects to compare. Comparing only the salaries or advancement potential of two jobs will almost certainly be a mistake. Likewise with comparing only years of experience or only degrees of two candidates.[This advice may seem obvious—except when it’s ignored.] One exception: when one of the candidates, but not the other, is disqualified by something sufficient to turn you off. Then, that single point of comparison will be enough.

3.    For the purpose of a balanced assessment, be sure to consider both similarities and differences, including both the commensurable and incommensurable parameters, such as salaries that can be compared and dramatically different job responsibilities [software engineer and trombone player] that cannot be compared so directly, if at all.

4.   When comparing staff, take care not to inadvertently humiliate anyone [i.e., avoid making “invidious comparisons” in someone’s face].

5.    Do not make comparisons that diminish the intrinsic value of anything, e.g., comparing a mountain here with a mountain there, or at least be aware of the risk of that consequence.

6.   Don’t hesitate to compare “apples” and “oranges”—since they are both fruit—or any other things that seem incomparable, if it seems it may be fruitful, e.g., comparing sailors’ knots with flowcharts [which might lead to rich innovations in systems design].

7.   When comparing the “figure” [foreground], be sure to also compare the “ground” [background]. This means factoring in and comparing the backgrounds of two jobs or candidates while comparing the foreground, foremost elements. For example, it is unwise to compare the bubbling foreground enthusiasm of a new assembly-line worker with the apathy of the old timers as a basis for a job evaluation without also factoring in the effects of years of routine on the job vs. the desire to please one’s new bosses.

If you follow these suggestions, and compare the comparisons you do make with the ones you should[n’t], you’ll quickly discover at least one characteristic they all share.

They are incomparable.

Read more in Career Advice

Michael Moffa, writer for Recruiter.com, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).