“How to break your heart every time” by falling victim to social relativity

Thomas J. DeLong

I have just read and will soon review Flying Without a Net: Turn Fear of Change into Fuel for Success, written by Thomas J. DeLong and published by Harvard Business Review Press (June 14, 2011).

DeLong examines comparing or what is termed “social relativity” in the social sciences (i.e. calibrating one’s accomplishments in the context of how others do) and characterizes it as “the Achilles Heel of the driven, ambitious professional.” As I read his extensive discussion in Chapter Seven: How to Break Your Heart Every Time, I was reminded of Ernest Becker’s book, Denial of Death,” in which he asserts that physical death is inevitable but it is possible to deny another form of death: that which occurs when we become wholly preoccupied with fulfilling others’ expectations of us.

Here’s what DeLong says about social relativity:

“It is the process of using external measures to determine how we think we are doing, of defining our successes by external criteria. This process begins early in life, and it is instilled in us by many factors. In fact, the process is so baked into everything we experience that it often feels like we have no control over the emotions that cause us to compare ourselves to others. It becomes a reflex rather than a calculated action. In certain cultures, the process of comparing impacts behavior all the time and in every way.”

This is especially true of those whom DeLong characterizes as “high-need-for-achievement professionals.” For them, Flying Without a Net really is a “must read.”


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