“Comparison is the thief of joy.” –Theodore Roosevelt
A few years ago, I invited author and philosopher Roman Krznaric to speak at an Escape The City career change program. I looked up to the guy, loved his book How to Find Fulfilling Work, and hoped he could shine light on the complex journey of pivoting one’s career.
During the Q&A, we eventually moved past career change and dug into the nuts and bolts of authordom – what’s it like being a successful, multi-book published author? More pointedly someone asked:
“Did you ever compare yourself to other authors as you began writing?”
Roman shot out of his chair:
“Did I ever? I still compare myself to other authors!”
He continued (I’m paraphrasing):
“When Alain de Botton comes out with a new book and sells a gazillion copies, I think ‘Why aren’t my books selling like Alain’s?’”
Roman is an accomplished author of five popular books. A writer we all considered wildly successful in his field. A person we looked up to – not just metaphorically but physically as he sat slightly elevated on the stage before us. And yet he still wrestled with comparison to others in his circle of influence and achievement. Even as that circle evolved to greater heights. Or maybe because of it.
Of course, Roman isn’t alone.
Comparison was on my mind when writing my last article on 4 Questions to Judge Yourself and Your Passion Projects By. Comparison was also on my mind as I watched two of my good friends each publish critically-acclaimed books. I doubled down on my comparison as I watched friends of those friends publish books. I tripled down as I watched people I don’t even know but “follow” on Instagram publish books.
Comparison remains on my mind each time I enter a room with a different group of friends: my married-with-kids friends; my corporate-climbing friends; my online “friends.” Some of these friends are living lives I think look fun and interesting. Most I wouldn’t trade with given the choice. Yet still, I compare.
Comparison arrives more as a knee-jerk habit than a deliberate choice. I can’t help but watch my fellow runners in this race of life and ask Where do I rank? Am I on pace?
Comparison was also on my mind earlier this year as I watched some of the most famous and successful people of our day, people whose lives some of us might aspire to – the Anthony Bourdains, the Kate Spades, the Aviciis – perish by their own depressed and confused hands.
It all serves as a sobering reminder: comparison is a wasteful way to spend a life.
If Roosevelt is right that “comparison is the thief of joy,” here are four ways to steal it back.
1. Decide Who You’ll Let Judge You
We all wanted to know: how Roman deal with comparison?
“I stopped reading my peers’ books.”
We all laughed. Then realized he wasn’t joking.
He explained that by comparing himself to his peers, he was allowing his peers to judge him. Even if they themselves weren’t actually judging him, he was judging himself through their imaginary judge-y eyes.
“Next to my desk I keep photos of my grandmother and seven of my favorite authors, most of whom are long dead. These are the people I let judge me now.”
You can judge yourself using your own judging criteria. Or you can judge yourself by designating your own judges.
2. Use Envy as a Clue
“Where it doesn’t feel like there’s a possibility, there is no envy.” –The School of Life
Conventionally speaking, envy is a shameful emotion. Something to avoid, hide, or deny at all costs.
Yet envy can also be a tool to uncover hidden or unrealized desires. Just as the people we admire offer clues to who we might want to become, envy hints at possible versions of ourselves that lay dormant.
The School of Life (founded by Alain de Botton) produced an excellent video on envy:
“Without regular envious attacks, we couldn’t possibly know what we wanted to be. Instead of trying to repress our envy, we should hence make every effort to study it. Each person we envy possesses a piece of the jigsaw puzzle depicting our possible future. There is a portrait of a ‘true self’ waiting to be assembled out of the envious hints we receive when we flick through a magazine, turn the pages of a newspaper or hear updates on the radio about the career moves of old schoolmates.
We should calmly ask one essential and redemptive question of all those we envy: ‘What could I learn about here?’”
If someone is further ahead outpacing you and you feel a tinge of envy – thank them. They’re showing you an example. You can learn from them. Instead of ruminating on envy quietly, use it as a North Star to direct you forward and fuel to kick your ass in action.
3. Focus on The Gap (vs. The Gain)
Instead of choosing who you’ll let judge you, you can choose to judge yourself only against yourself. Research suggests this works – but only when you compare yourself in a certain way.
It’s psychologically damning to measure yourself against a perfect or ideal version of yourself – what Dan Sullivan calls “The Gap” between where you are and where you want to be. Instead, measure yourself against how much you’ve grown and achieved since you began – “The Gain” you’re making over time.
“The way to measure your progress is backward against where you started, not against your ideal.” —Dan Sullivan, “The Gain and The Gap”
4. Imagine You’re The Only Person on Earth
There’s a thought experiment I put myself through when I’m particularly confused in a cloud of my own conflicting comparisons:
If every person on Earth with whom I’d compare myself to disappeared today – what would I do? What choice might I make? Who would I compare myself to?
Of course, our lives don’t exist in a vacuum. Most of our choices are made because of other people – partners, lovers, parents, children, friends, customers, clients, our community, the more-than-human world. Much of life’s meaning is made up the other life around us.
Still, the question can be a useful tool to cut through the bullshit of comparison and choosing your own way.
There’s No Race, There’s Only Runners.
In my quiet judge-free hours, I remember that I love my life.
Sure, there are things I’d tweak, ways I still hope to grow, and new ambitions to harbor. I’m happy with everything I have (and don’t have), with everything I do (and don’t do), with who I am (and who I’m not).
Yet the temptation of comparison, it seems, never ends. No matter how high you climb in your career and in your life, there’s always someone better, somewhere. There’s always someone more qualified. Someone who’s selling more copies than you. Someone making more money than you. Someone having more impact than you are. Someone touching more lives. Someone living more fully and alive than you. Whatever that means.
The Stoics believed that daily life was compartmentalized into two categories:
- That which is outside of our control.
- That which is within our control.
Most events in life are outside our control. The weather, the economy, the markets, other people’s perception of us, etc.
But that which gives flavor to our individual version of life is the stuff within our control: how we respond to these external factors.
We can respond to the temptation of comparison by beating ourselves up or frowning about all which we don’t yet have.
Or we can pick our own judges. Define our own judgement criteria. Use envy as a clue. Compare ourselves against how far we’ve come. We can run our own race.
In the words of the band Lucius:
There’s no race, there’s only a runner–”Two of Us on the Run” by Lucius
Just keep one foot in front of the other
There’s no race there’s only a runner.
1, 2, 3 even when you get tired
Just keep one foot in front of the other.
There’s no race, no ending in sight
No second too short, no window too tight.