Comparing Yourself With Others: Good or Bad?

The iPhone 4s seems like a pretty awesome phone. Until you pick up the iPhone 5. Then the 4s seems a bit clunky, slow, and so…2011.

I don’t know what it is about us, but once we see a newer, shinier model, it’s hard not to want an upgrade.

Parents aren’t immune to this phenomenon either. When we see our kid dogging it at karate practice alongside another kid who has snappier kicks and does full range of motion pushups, it’s hard not to make an internal comparison.

It can even be tempting to make the comparison explicit and try to motivate your kid by setting the other kid up as an example. As in “Look at Herb over there stretching, warming up, and going through his patterns before class.” Or “Look at Herb doing his homework before class” or even “Herb eats his broccoli and mentally rehearses his patterns every night before bed.”

There are times when kids get inspiration and motivation from watching others excel, when they realize what is possible for them and become more determined to perform up to their potential.

But is there a danger in utilizing this tactic?

The problem with shining examples

As you can imagine, there are a variety of problems with comparing our kids (or the kid inside of us) to others when the underlying message is “Why can’t you be more like that?”

For one, this can lead to resentments and foster unnecessary social tensions.

But more importantly, we all have different developmental trajectories, natural abilities, and interests. We are born different sizes, we grow at our own pace, we learn different skills at different rates, and so on.

And when we become accustomed to relying on comparisons with others to gauge our worth and value, we could miss out on a lot.

The problem with external comparisons

Relying on external comparisons to determine your worth is a tricky thing to base your identity and confidence upon. After all, you will always be able to find someone who is “better” in some way – often dramatically so.

Thus, athletes learn to focus on the “controllables,” as in those factors that are under their direct control. How hard they train. How effectively they develop their skills. The strategy they employ. The habits they build. The choices they make. What they focus on before, during, and after competitions. And so on.

Whether they win or lose, how good the opposition is – all that is not under their direct control, and tempting though it may be to think about, merely diverts time and energy away from that which they can do something about.

Besides, meaning and satisfaction in the long-term seem to come not from being better than someone else or making fewer mistakes than they do, but by figuring out who you are, and being better than who you were yesterday.

The role of our natural curiosities

Whenever I get a chance to pick the brain of a successful (and professionally satisfied) person, I often ask for the story of how they got to where they are. Generally, the story is full of coincidences and unexpected turns of events that only make sense with the benefit of hindsight.

The advice they share reflects the twisty turny nature of their journeys as well. More often than not, they stress the importance of following your natural curiosities and interests even when they don’t make sense or fit “the plan.” That somehow, it will all fit together in the end.

Steve Jobs said this very thing in his famed Stanford commencement address.

I suspect the reason why more of us don’t do this, is that it’s scary. It feels much safer to follow the well-worn path that others have already successfully traveled. Where we can guess what the journey will look like, and what the approximate destination will be.

It may indeed be easier to define ourselves by following another’s path, but at some point we will likely find it more satisfying to pursue our own, despite the uncertainty.

Finding our path

Sir Ken Robinson is a noted advisor and expert on education and creativity. He wrote a compelling book called The Element, a term which represents the intersection of our natural talents and interests. This, he proposes, is where we feel most ourselves, most free, and inspired to reach our potential.

Unfortunately, finding that intersection is easier said than done when we are too focused on emulating others, or living up to an external standard that may conflict with who we really are.

Watch this 20-minute video as Robinson discusses how we come to tune out our natural curiosity and creativity, where we become overly fearful of making mistakes and deviating too far from a circumscribed one-size-fits-many path.

The one-sentence summary

“Be not another, if you can be yourself.” ~Paracelsus

photo credit: TheBusyBrain via photopin cc

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12 Responses

  1. Various teachers tried to motivate me at school and music school by comparing me to other students. It never worked for me at all, and I didn’t have much interest in making those comparisons myself either. Other people’s means (processes) are interesting and can be useful, but the ends they achieve by those means can’t really help you. All you can do is keep doing your own work.

  2. As a now-middle-aged one of the kids to whom teachers and parents would bluntly and loudly make comparisons, I feel well experienced enough to ask teachers and parents to please not do that, thank you. It achieves nothing except to make Herb the most hated kid in the class. 😛 Fostering social tensions, indeed.

    I figure that, as long as I am the only person to whom I am comparing myself — I always aim to be better than I was last time — I am guaranteed to improve. If I finish third in a crowd of top performers versus finishing first in a crowd where the top two people had the flu and had to sit out … how can I tell whether I’ve gotten better or not? I may have been better when I finished third!

    But if I measure myself by my own standard and always aim to exceed what I did last time, I know I’m improving unanbiguously. Do that long enough, and eventually you’ll end up in the top spot anyway. Anything else is measuring yourself by a moving tape measure.

    There’s a quote from Baryshnikov that’s like that where he said he never tried to out-dance anyone but himself. He did that for long enough that eventually they were tying up the White House chandeliers to keep him from hitting them when he performed there. 🙂

    1. Nicely put, Janis! I like your line about the “moving tape measure.”

      There’s a quote I like from the world of branding: “We should all try harder to be ourselves, as everyone else is already taken anyway, and replicas don’t sell for as much.”

  3. I immediately had to share that video of Sir Ken Robinson!

    One of the biggest fears I had to overcome when pursuing music was to convince myself that there was a future in pursuing it. My father is an engineer with a career that spans from the early 60s into the early 2000s. I was scared to mention interest in certain things for fear my ideas wouldn’t be accepted. There was this definite coaxing away from the arts that I experienced.

    Once I decided to take the plunge after college, it was the comparisons that was my next big challenge. I’ve struggled with comparing myself not just to other famous musicians, but more to those who began their music education at an early age or had parents that were musicians.

    Ever since then I’ve felt like I’ve been catching up. My college degree was in the visual arts field for computer graphics because I thought that would give me a “career”. I work hard trying to build my musical skills from the ground up.

    I believe it’s never good to have a child, teenager, or adult compare themselves “as a whole” to others in their field. I DO however feel that it does help to sometimes compare your work ethic to others. This might help you work harder if you aren’t and stops self pity, if that’s what you do.

    What do you guys think about a comparison of success between those with an early music education and encouragement to those who had to find the path later in life?

  4. Hiya Kyle — how are we defining success for this discussion: as virtuosity, fame, financial reward, professional respect, or something else?

    I really dig the distinction you make between comparing your work ethic and comparing your entire being to how another being’s behavior appears to you. The first comparison is practical; the second is silly.

    If you don’t mind my asking, how exact is your own vision of personal success?

    My own belief is that an early education in music guarantees nothing, even for geniuses. Therefore it can’t possibly be a requirement for success. Again, we need a fairly precise idea of what we’d call success. If we’ll only settle for having been a child prodigy, then most of us are admittedly out of luck, since time as we experience it moves in only one direction.

  5. Keane,

    True, time does only move in one direction.

    I’d say that success for me is getting what I hear in my head out into my instrument, song, or recording mix. If I can do that then I would be much more satisfied.

    I know this skill comes with time, but the trick for me is getting to the point where I can precisely define what I specifically want to do in music.

    Do I want to just be a guitarist? Do I want to write songs? Learn my way around the digital sequencer and synthesizers. It’s all very interesting to me, but I know that I need to start specifically defining what I’m doing.

    As far as my feelings on early music education, I guess it’s just my own tendency to feel rushed. It’s a great challenge to learn to slow down and enjoy the process.

  6. Kyle, I sympathise with getting to the point where you can define it precisely. Music represents such abundant wealth to me — it’s hard to accept any limitation. I love it all!

    Your goal of wanting to be able to play what you hear in your head is a classic. Hang onto that. It’s been said that “if you can hear it, you can play it.” I believe this is true — if you’re willing to march through the intervening phases of building your chops. At the very least, what you can hear can be played now — slowly. Dr. Noa has given us articles here about slow practice and how useful it is. They’re right on the money.

    No need to rule any of your possibilities out, for as long as you’re alive and can handle your instrument without pain. (And should you get to the point of having pain that can’t be dealt with, there’s always other instruments: especially the one inside your skull.) No reason to think you can’t do all of it; you simply can’t do all of it at once. Grab what feels best now, whatever your circumstances favour at present, give it all you got, and run with it until it stops growing.

    I got an opportunity to play with sequencers and synths, and really had a blast. But I also must admit that it ate my piano technique alive over the 14-15 months I worked at it. Clicking on a piano roll is lazier work than playing. Watch out for that. It’ll be a long time before digital music can really be like playing — fantastic as DAWs are for mixing, composing and arranging. The learning curve for digital won’t flatten out anytime soon, and the tools change in your hands. Your guitar won’t do that.

    Build what you want to do around what you have the strongest emotional connection to. OBO (one being’s opinion): a happy and prosperous life is best built around positive emotions — not sadnesses, hates, fears, depression, etc. Lives built around negative emotions have unnecessary adverse effects. Take what you like and leave the rest; and here endeth the unsolicited advice.

  7. Thanks Keane, you have an awesome way with words! I think the most important thing for me to be doing right now is meeting people. I tend to spend more of my time at home practicing and missing that human element.

    I do eventually want to play around with a lot of things, but I think the best thing to do now is keep it up with guitar, develop my ear further, and work on songwriting and vocals too.

    Working in the DAW does have a learning curve and I’m kind of turned off by the lack of intuitiveness even though I am a computer geek. Eventually though, eventually….

  8. Interesting conversations…
    I love making music but 99% of the times i compare myself to huge musicians, and i feel like shit. Right now i finally started to value more My creative path, since im pretty Shure the best of the best also have doubts, we are all humans… If we can hear it, lets make our best to make ir a reality!

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