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