Americans Love Keeping Score

Americans Love Keeping Score

A couple of Saturdays ago I was listening to the Ric Edelman show on the radio as I drove to the gym and he said something that really stuck with me. He noted that Americans favorite pastime is keeping score. It isn’t baseball, football, hockey, or shopping, but it is keeping score in some way shape or form. And as I thought about it I think he is totally right.

Think about how we keep score on a daily basis. Maybe you measure how many calories you have eaten, compliments given or received, how many miles we have driven, what it costs to buy a loaf of bread. We keep score when it comes to comparing ourselves to others such as I don’t have this car or I am sure glad I don’t have this house or whatever it may be.

Even on this blog which is about paying off debt, reaching financial independence, teaching others about personal finance, and primarily finding a balance for my life I keep score. I submit quarterly debt updates. I talk at length about strategies for paying off debt or refinancing a home or a savings rate or whatever. I, like most people, measure my life by keeping score.

And the more I thought about this the more it made me sick to my stomach.

At some level we all need to keep score somehow. Right we need to check that our blood pressure, our weight, how much we are eating, etc in order to be healthy. But think about why we keep score. Is it primarily for us or is it for constant self-comparison?

We keep score when we discuss our professional athletic teams such as my team has more championships than yours or this player makes more money so they must be better or whatever. Keeping score puts us in a perpetual state of competition and that competition is primarily against someone else, not necessarily ourselves.

There is, at some level, nothing wrong with keeping score for yourself because having personal goals is a good thing. It is a great thing and a great motivator. For example, if you are training for a marathon you want to be able to beat your running times as you get further into your training. Those scores can be frustrating, but they are also motivational.

It is when we start competing against everything else and keeping track of everything else that keeping score gets dangerous. Because then we are living up to someone else’s or what we think are someone else’s expectations.

So maybe it is time for a little bit of changing our mindset. No more keeping score against others, but only for ourselves. Keep score for personal goals, not necessarily for what society things you should keep score for.

Keep score so that you have certain benchmarks you can use in your own life, but those benchmarks are for you and you alone.

Ultimately, keeping score is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, keeping score can be useful to measure certain metrics for health, paying off debt, setting certain goals. However, it is when we constantly keep score measuring ourselves, our teams, our political system, and our lives to others that it can certainly be dangerous. There is no end to how you can keep score. Competition is a good thing, but only when it helps you become a better person not in buying more stuff or making you feel inadequate when you don’t feel enough.

My advice: Keep score, but make sure you are doing it to truly improve you not someone else’s or society’s standards.

4 thoughts on “Americans Love Keeping Score

  1. I totally agree – we are such a competitive nation. In some ways competition is healthy, but so often we take it too far. And when we are always competing against each other it means we don’t work together.

    1. I totally agree. At some point it is human nature to compete, but I think we have gone into hyper competition where it is always about something bigger, better, etc. That’s why FI is so appealing. Last night, my wife and I were talking about FU money. Based upon some things that happened this weekend I think she is coming to the point that is our next goal, not just FI, but FU money. Having FU money will, I think, lead to us caring less about what others think and less competition.

  2. Yup, social comparison theory in action! And you’re right, of course, we should only compare for good reasons, not bad. However, near the end of the piece, you write “political systems” and I’m not sure if I agree (depending on what you mean). The attention to income inequality, Panama Papers, rigged system, etc. comes from a focus on comparing with others. It seems as if social change comes from comparing with others: abolitionist movement, women’s suffrage, civil rights movement, etc. etc.

    1. When I was talking about political systems I guess I was referring to the ad nauseum comparisons of the U.S. or other countries regarding specific items (e.g. health care). I am not saying we can’t learn a lot from political systems or they a lot from us. I guess I was just thinking of the drumbeat of doom and gloom that predicts our decline or whatever. But your point is well-taken.

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