The Problem with Comparison
Updated: Apr 15
I shared a story at a writer’s conference last year, and it’s one I feel is worth sharing again when it comes to the problem of comparing ourselves to others.
It happened like this.
When I was a freshman in high school, I had the chance to run track and field, and when I say run, I don’t actually mean run. I mean jump!
Long jump. Triple jump. High jump.
These were the events in which I “specialized,” and over the course of the season, I got pretty good. I recorded incremental improvements in my muscle tone, speed, vertical lift, and most importantly, distance, in all my events.
These were improvements worth celebrating, and I did.
However, on the last day of practice, one of star sprinters, a guy named Ray Atkins, asked our jumping coach about the triple jump, which he had never tried.
After a brief tutorial, Ray set out to try his first triple jump. And it was in that moment that I watched a first timer beat my personal record by twenty-five feet!!!
To put that in perspective, the great white shark in Jaws was listed at twenty-five feet. Ray could have “jumped the shark” and more in his first attempt!
I’d like to tell you that I was impressed, and I certainly was, but I also became insanely jealous, even bitter, as many of us do when we compare ourselves to those who’ve outpaced or exceeded us in some capacity.
Only moments before, I had reason to celebrate hitting my personal goals. Now, all I could think of was how far behind I was.
And that was the last day I ever competed in the triple jump. I called it quits right then and there.
Unfortunately, what I failed to accept is that Ray had been training as an athlete for years. He may not have been a triple jumper, but he was an incredible sprinter and star running back, which means he was already stronger, faster, and more competitive in most sports than I was.
He was also athletically gifted in areas I was not. Maybe I’d never be. And to be frank, there's very little chance I would have ever beaten Ray in the triple jump. He was simply that good. That shouldn’t have mattered.
I had trained all year to become the best jumper I could be and had done just fine. But instead of measuring my success in smaller, personal increments, which I had previously done, I began to focus on all the ways I wasn’t Ray Atkins.
I allowed someone else’s goals, achievements, and success markers to redefine my own. In doing so, I lost joy in my own progress and even hope in my own potential.
What I’ve come to realize since then is that too many of us quit on ourselves and our goal too early. We don’t give ourselves the chance to become the person we want to be, and this is often the result of comparing ourselves to others.
We look at someone else’s achievement, influence, talent, and even possessions and wonder, how come I’m not there or how come I don’t have what they have?
Maybe they’ve earned it. Maybe they haven’t. Maybe they were born with gifts, talents, and opportunities we don't have and may never have. It doesn’t matter.
This is the problem with trying to categorize or group people on the basis of privilege.
When we worry more about the things others have and the things we don’t, instead of focusing on who we are, who we want to be, where we want to go, and where we’ve been, we become discouraged, envious, bitter, ungrateful, and self-defeating through the impossible measuring stick of someone else’s success.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t set goals. We should absolutely set targets to aim for in life and give ourselves the freedom to build on incremental achievement and gain the reward that comes from those achievements. To quote Jordan Peterson (now apparently the Red Skull), “incremental improvement repeated is virtually unstoppable.” This was something I wrote about in my previous post Daring to Dream Small.
There is nothing wrong with admiration either.
Successful people are often inspired and motivated by greatness. They learn from the disciplines and habits of others and apply those same techniques to their own goals.
Unsuccessful people, however, allow someone else’s success or achievement to discourage them. They become jealous or bitter when others rise and they do not.
These are the same people who tend to focus more on outcome, influence, and privilege instead of their own character, discipline, and growth.
This is something I’ve seen happen with a lot of writers. It’s what happened to me as a young athlete.
According to Ira Glass, those who become writers do so because we’ve developed an eye for good writing. We recognize and appreciate it when we see it, and that inspires us.
However, when most writers are starting out, our writing isn’t that good, and we know it. We have the eye, which allows us to identify where our work is bad, but we compare our writing to the greats instead of allowing it to be measured against itself over time.
There are some naturally gifted writers and athletes out there. There will also be stronger athletes and better writers no matter how much time or work we put in. Some people simply have more talent, money, influence, ability, and an easier path to reaching their goals than us.
They’re not you; you’re not them. And do you care more about your goals and success or theirs?
When we compare ourselves to those who’ve outpaced us, envy is not far behind.
When we compare ourselves to those we’ve outpaced, pride is inevitably waiting at the door.
In either case, comparison becomes a self-imposed hurdle that prevents us from running our race or completing our best work. It causes us to look behind, to the side, or too far ahead instead of focusing on what is right in front of us.
And while we stress over all the ways we're not like someone else, that person continues to grow. They're not worried about others. They're focused on their goals.
In the end, the only person left behind is you.
So stop comparing yourself to those around you. Remove this way of thinking from your life. Learn to celebrate the success of others while focusing on your goals and the steps you need to take to achieving them. And don’t be afraid to build upon small, repeated improvements. Imagine how unstoppable you can become when you do.
That being said, thank you for taking a few minutes out of your day to read this post. As always, if you enjoyed or were motivated and encouraged by these words, hit the heart icon below, share this post with someone you know could use a little push in their goals, or subscribe to to help me keep writing and providing fresh perspective to the students, storytellers, and seekers of this world.