There’s an old Henry Youngman joke that goes, “how’s your wife?” The punchline (I have to make you wait at least a second) is: “Compared to what?”
It may help to borrow Daniel Kahneman’s framework of System 1 and System 2 (from his book, “Thinking Fast and Slow”) to break this down. System 1 is our fast, automatic processing system. System 2 is our slow, deliberate processing system.
System 1 is full of default settings, evolutionary reflexes, and mental shortcuts. System 2 is what we engage whenever we slow down and say, “wait a second…” System 2 is still influenced by system 1, but it’s where we go when we need to REALLY think and break a problem down.
Some of the best comedians have made entire careers out of finding System 2 observations about something that everyone else’s System 1 normally just skips right through. They ask “compared to what” in order to find a surprising twist that short circuits your auto-pilot System 1 expectation.
In comedy, maybe proposing the “what” goes far enough. Seinfeld succeeded with “a show about nothing” for a reason. Mitch Hedberg was one of the greats with System 1 short-circuiting lines like, “rice is great if you’re really hungry and want to eat two thousand of something.”
Perhaps less funny, but even more important is the natural follow-up: how should we choose the “what?” Whether it is our benchmarks, baselines, or comparisons, the “what” matters greatly.
The first step is realizing how automatically the “what” is mostly chosen for you. The next step is to start training yourself to not let System 1 exclusively answer the question. Even Kahneman said it’s somewhere between impossible and really hard, but stopping to ask – like a good comedian – can change the way you see the world.