“Reference Anxiety” is basically the compulsion to keep up with the Joneses.
I came across this term a few years ago, in Lee Eisenberg’s book The Number. Lee mentions this as one big obstacle that keep people from attaining their “Number” – which is the estimated dollar amount in their nest egg so that they can retire comfortably.
Though I wasn’t aware of the term for it, I had experienced reference anxiety numerous times. I think most of us have.
I used to be a little proud of the fact that I drove a relatively old car to work. But that only lasted until my wife pointed out that Larry Summers, the director of Obama's National Economic Council still drives a 1995 Protege. Now there’s a man who is completely free of reference anxiety.
What struck me (and the reason I am posting this at all) is a side comment that Lee Eisenberg makes in his book. He mentions research that shows that it is not the Joneses who are raising the bar. Instead, he says, “we feel a great deal of pressure to keep up with ourselves.”
This, I find to be particularly insightful. There is no dearth of better things to acquire and enjoy. I know from first hand experience. I have many friends who are very successful in their chosen fields and not surprisingly, they live the good life. None of these friends would suggest that I go and buy or subscribe to the same things that they do. And yet it takes a lot of energy (if not courage) to consciously stay away from trying to keep up.
When it comes to reference anxiety perhaps I can fight it better if I realize that I am my own enemy.
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