Have you ever looked at your life one day and been happy with what you see, just to look again another day and be ever so slightly disappointed?
It is weird isn’t it, we are happy with what we have achieved until we see what someone else has done and decide that their achievement is far better.
In my early career I always thought that I was just bad at sticking to an organised, productive regime. I used to look at so many productivity tips, tricks, hacks and gasp… tools! Who doesn’t love a new productivity tool?
I would see all of these people who just seemed to have everything in order, they were the ultimate productivity idols. On the face of it, I seemed pretty productive and organised to some people but compared to these guys, I was an amateur.
I spent a heap of time trying to implement their methods, (shoehorn them into my life) but no matter what I tried, nothing stuck, they always seemed to do it better, easier, faster than me.
In the end I gave up trying and found myself spiralling in to a chaotic working method that had no structure at all. I was running between half-finished tasks and being nothing more than a very busy, very tired Caree. I spent more time trying to remember what I had to do than making any real progress in my career. I hated every moment of it but the thought of implementing someone else’s methodology just to fail at it again was just too much.
It took me ages to realise that if I always compare myself to the impossible standard of someone who only has to look productive for one You Tube video, I am never going to find what really works for me in practice. This doesn’t let me off the hook for generally being compulsive and a little obsessive, some things will never change but it did make me consider a different perspective.
I did a little wider reading into comparative thinking and I was disheartened to read so many accounts of people who felt that they were failing in their career. So many times, I read that someone else was doing it better or that compared to other people their age they should have been further up the ladder.
If there is one thing I have learned, it is that it doesn’t matter whether you are comparing better or worse, success or failure. It all depends on where you set the bar and who you are comparing yourself to that makes the difference. For example, being President of Mexico is impressive stuff, I mean, wow you have really made it if that is your job title right. Unless of course you compare yourself to being President of the United States, then all of a sudden it starts to appear a little less epic.
No matter what we achieve we could always find someone who is doing a better job or who has achieved more than us. If we compare ourselves too much, we become so hung-up on how they achieved their success that we try to emulate what they did and how they did it. What worked for that person may not work for you but by the time you have found that out you may have already set aside your own authenticity and sense of direction in favour of their methods.
John Coltrane, an American Jazz Saxophonist and Composer quite famously fell into a similar trap. A young Coltrane idolised Saxophonist Charlie Parker, he knew that Parker had been an intense student of all things music and figured that had to be the key to his success.
Coltrane set out to do the same thing. He would master all types of music and instruments, studying the theory and methodology behind them until he had an unbelievable repertoire of skills and knowledge. It wasn’t long before Coltrane was playing in various bands, slowly developing his own unique sense of rhythm and musicality.
Interestingly however, when it came time to perform solo’s, Coltrane imitated other musicians instead of playing in his own way.
All the time he was mimicking other artists his career could only go so far, he was always ‘just like’ someone else and never fully himself and the audience could tell. It wasn’t until Miles Davies encouraged Coltrane to embrace his own unique abilities that his authenticity began to shine through, and his career really took off with his own quartet.
This story is a great example of comparisons that help and comparisons that hinder. When he was just starting out Coltrane compared himself to Parker and found that the key to success is knowledge, this was a good call and a healthy comparison used to deduce what Coltrane could do to improve his chances of success.
But when Coltrane was imitating others because he felt his own way of playing was so very different upon comparison, he just stifled his own career and potential for success.
Things to remember when you are comparing yourself to others
- There are healthy critical comparisons and unhealthy self-esteem draining comparisons.
- There will always be someone who can make you feel like you are failing if you look hard enough.
- Seeking direction, learning from someone else’s journey, absorbing tips, tricks and advice is not the same as making a better or worse comparison.
- When you are inspired by someone’s methods, draw out the parts you can use and discard the parts that don’t work for your own circumstances.
- You can use critical comparative thinking to work out how your behaviours and successes stack-up against others to get a bench mark, but it is important to know the difference between a comparison that helps you develop and a comparison that leaves you feeling inadequate and unmotivated.