Why your work life is so much harder than everyone else’s

The folks in marketing probably didn’t have to wait this long for a train.
The folks in marketing probably didn’t have to wait this long for a train.
Image: Reuters/Leonhard Foeger
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“There’s this unbelievable bias and prejudice against quote-unquote good-looking people,” the actor Rob Lowe told the New York Times a few years ago. Directors wouldn’t give Lowe complicated male roles when he was younger, he said, because he was too attractive to be taken seriously.

“Oh, please,” you’re probably thinking. In anticipation of that exact response, the Times titled the interview, “Rob Lowe on the problems of being pretty.”

But, say the authors of a 2016 paper that cites Lowe as an example, the actor’s seemingly clueless response is actually perfectly human. “Lowe’s blindness to how blessed he has been should not be dismissed as a reflection of unusual vanity or a peculiar lack of self-awareness,” write psychology professors Shai Davidai, at The New School of Social Research, and Cornell University’s Thomas Gilovich. In fact, they propose that we all fall victim to the same mode of thinking, highlighting the negative, when we assess what’s working in our lives and what isn’t. They call it the “headwinds-tailwinds asymmetry” phenomenon.

In the introduction to their study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the authors invoke the image of a long-distance runner or cyclist. When runners have an obstacle to overcome, a literal headwind, their minds are naturally more primed to pay attention to it. The forces working in their favor, the tailwinds they experienced earlier, are easily forgotten or minimized, because all those things did was make the run easier. No threat there.

We all emphasize the headwinds when we evaluate our lives against where we want to be, or in comparison to others, say the professors. We do it when feeling squeezed ahead of a deadline at work, while we spy colleagues heading out for leisurely lunches. Or when your peer is promoted, but you stay put. Everyone else has it easier, rode coattails, knew the right people, had the right amount of ugly to be cast in serious films. (Stars, their biases are just like ours!)

But we can train our way out of this infrequently examined habit.

Look how easy that group has it

In testing the headwinds/tailwinds theory and exploring its nuances, the authors conducted several experiments. They found, for instance, that people often feel their parents were harder on them than on a brother or sister, that both Democrats and Republicans believe the electoral map is designed to put them at a disadvantage, and that academics perceive that journal reviewers and tenure committees put them through more scrutiny than they do academics in related sub-disciplines.

In every industry, says Davidai, you have groups that feel put upon collectively. “The people in marketing think ‘We have it so hard, because we have to think of a novel idea every time. And those people in sales, all they do is go sell it,'” he says. “But the people in sales say of their marketing team, ‘All they do is sit around and think about ideas, and we have to go deal with the client.’”

True, in some cases people can identify a past influence that carried them to a place in life. They may thank a mentor, or the high school teacher who convinced them to apply for art school. Still, that sort of long view recognition comes more naturally when a person is evaluating how they arrived at their current station, according to the researchers.

“People’s most salient headwinds, in contrast, tend to be things that affected, or are affecting, their progress along a given path, rather than the path they’ve chosen,” they write, offering examples of this style of thinking: “My work would be much better funded if the field saw the value of my approach.” “I would be senior management by now, if the company didn’t play favorites.” “If not for my part-time job, I would have gotten much higher grades.”

How to get some perspective

Fortunately, this is one psychological trap that can be avoided—and it should be, says Davidai, because not only is the conviction that your life is harder than that of others’ inaccurate, it’s a drag on your happiness and wellbeing. Their study shows it can even lead to the type of corrosive resentment that can make someone behave immorally. Those bitter folks in marketing, Davidai says, may begin to cut corners, having warped the facts enough to believe it’s in their right to level the playing field. 

Like every other psychological quirk, says Davidai, “once you’re aware this is how your mind works, you’re closer to correcting the bias.” But there’s a more proactive exercise that can help you develop new thinking patterns, too. It involves acknowledging your tailwinds in a deliberate, detailed way.

Some people talk about gratitude journals, and Davidai says they can be helpful, but often not for long. People report that after a few days of being grateful for good health or a loving parent, they run out of gratitude. To avoid this, he suggests getting hyper-specific about what exactly is supporting you or has supported you, whether you keep a journal or just think about it. “Don’t say, I’m grateful for my health. But, I’m grateful that I can walk,’” he suggests. Instead of saying “I’m grateful that I live in a democracy,” he advises, “say, ‘I’m grateful that I can practice free speech,’ or that the rule of law still stands protected.”

Being extra-specific about tailwinds can also counterbalance the weight of perceived disadvantages, which people see in high definition. In his ongoing research, Davidai has found, we paint good things quickly and with a broad brush. Anyone who has listened to a friend or partner complain about the office, however, knows how easily people can zoom in on the minutiae—what was said, who was standing where, the posture assumed—during a tense meeting, for example. We give barriers disproportionate heft.

Bear in mind, however, this gratitude fix is meant for your own enlightenment and is not to be applied as a service to friends or colleagues. Don’t protest (i.e. “But look at all the good things happening in your life”) when someone lays out their problems, psychologists like Davidai warn. “I find it’s better to just acknowledge it. ‘You’re right, it’s challenging.’” 

That said, Davidai could imagine softening a conflict at work by asking grumbling employees who feel put upon to come together to talk about what’s going well for them (though he doesn’t have hard data to support this strategy, he notes).

In the age of intersectionality

None of this awareness means you have to stop thinking about solving life’s problems. You can be grateful and angry at the same time, says Davidai, pointing to his daily use of New York City’s subway as an example. We can push for badly needed upgrades to the transit system that takes us to work, while also reminding ourselves that it’s a remarkable piece of infrastructure that remains relatively cheap.

Stepping back, Davidai also believes that addressing the “why me” mindset is important in the context of the larger culture.

“In the age of intersectionality,” he says, “we all have complex identities and advantages and disadvantages, and it’s so much easier for us to notice our disadvantages and others’ advantages.”

Now, however, ”we’re moving toward this idea that people can notice not just other people’s privileges, but also their own.”