When Doing Better Means Feeling Worse

Professor of organizational behavior, Victoria Husted Medvec, explains why coming in third feels worse than placing second.

Do you feel like a success?


Answering that question means reckoning with what you’ve achieved, with the price you’ve paid, and with the balance between the two. Many people’s lives feel out of control because the cost of their success is too high. They work on assignments they don’t like, they work with jerks, or they’re just always working.

Victoria Husted Medvec, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Northwestern University’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management, focuses on the other half of the equation: Why do so many people feel dissatisfied not with the price they’ve paid but with the payoff? “Most people assume that the more they achieve, the happier they’ll be,” Medvec says. “That’s not always the case. People determine how satisfied they feel by the comparisons they make. And achievement-oriented people tend to make one-sided comparisons: How could I have done better?”

Medvec’s best-known research involves the Olympics. She and some colleagues studied the reactions of U.S. athletes to the medals they had won. Her conclusion: Silver medalists tend to be less satisfied with their performance than bronze medalists are. Doing better can actually mean feeling worse. “Silver medalists think about what might have been,” Medvec says. “Bronze medalists think about how lucky they are to have a medal at all.”

It’s an all-too-human reaction. All success is relative – especially in competitions with clear cutoff points: Did I win the 100-meter dash? Did I get the promotion to executive vice president? Thinking about these cutoff points can wreak havoc on our sense of self-worth. “Let’s say you get paid a bonus at work based on a point system,” Medvec says. “You get no bonus for less than 25 points, a certain bonus for 25 points, and a bigger bonus for 30 points. People will tend to feel happier with 25 points than with 28. At 25, they qualify for the first bonus pool. At 28, they feel they could have made the bigger pool.”

Consider a related example. A company is hiring a new CEO. The board wants to show its respect for a talented young vice president, so it considers her for the job – but then chooses a more seasoned executive. The directors think that they’ve offered the VP a vote of confidence. Medvec’s conclusion: “She’s more likely to leave the company than the vice presidents who weren’t considered at all. People who are contenders, but who don’t finish first, are more likely to be dissatisfied than people who were never contenders.”

This reaction to less-than-total success is natural – and destructive. “The trick is to shoot for the top but to know how to deal with it when you don’t finish on top,” Medvec urges. “Our inclination, when we just miss something, is to think about how things could have been better. Think instead about how they could have been different. And don’t forget to think about how they could have been worse.”