Why Envy and Comparison are Silently Killing Your Creativity
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 potential pitfalls of comparison for writers.
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, height and distance, in all my events.
These were improvements worth celebrating, and I did.
However, on the last day of practice, one of our top 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!!!
I’d like to tell you that I was impressed, and I certainly was, but I also became insanely jealous and even discouraged by Ray's jaw-dropping feat.
Only moments before, I was celebrating reaching my goals for the season. Now, all I could think of was how far behind I really was in the field of competitive triple jump.
So what did I do?
Well I can tell you what I didn't do. I didn't allow Ray's heroics to motivate me. I didn't use Ray's achievement to inspire me to train harder and aim higher.
Nope. That was the last day I ever competed in the triple jump.
I quit right then and there, concluding that I would never be able to compete with Ray Atkins, so why bother?
Of course, comparison is part of competitive sports. We must always measure our best against someone else's best. We can be as good as we possibly can, but sometimes our best just doesn't measure up to someone who's simply better.
Winning involves being our best but also better than our competition.
In sports, competition can inspire us to dig deeper, push harder, and exceed even our own expectations; and I've come to believe in the power of playing above our level.
The question in any profession, however, is does excellence motivate or discourage us?
Is our goal to be better than the best or better than we were the day before?
Comparison can be an effective measuring tool. Even in writing, it's good to know what other writers are doing, what's selling, and how the best work makes it on the shelf and stays on the shelf.
Comparison becomes problematic, though, when we lose perspective on our progress, joy in our process, and hope in our potential.
Unfortunately, what I failed to accept in the world of high school sports is that:
1). Ray had been training as an athlete for years. He may not have been a 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.
2). Ray was athletically gifted in areas I was not and probably would never be. He was simply that good.
3). I had trained all year to become the best jumper I could, and I was showing improvement. But now, instead of measuring my success in smaller, personal increments, I began to focus on all the ways I wasn’t Ray Atkins.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t set goals or dream big. We should absolutely set target goals and give ourselves the chance to build on incremental achievement and gain the reward that comes from those achievements. To quote Jordan Peterson ( who's apparently the Red Skull), “incremental improvement repeated is virtually unstoppable.” This was something I wrote about in my previous post Daring to Dream Small. If you've read that post, you'll know that I argue, sometimes we have to set the bar at a level we can reach to start, keeping in mind where we want to go eventually.
As a freshman, I wasn't going to hit Ray's mark. Not yet at least.
We all have the tendency to look at someone else's achievements or talent and wonder, how come I’m not there or how come I don’t have what they have?
Maybe they’ve earned it and put in the work. Maybe they haven’t. Maybe they were simply born with gifts, talents, and opportunities we don't have and may never have. So what? We can't control what they do or how high they jump.
Yes, Ray Atkins had far more natural athletic ability than I did. And yet, becoming bitter about his talent and success only led to my defeat.
When we compare ourselves instead of focusing on who we are, where we want to go, and what we hope to accomplish, we can easily become discouraged, envious, bitter, ungrateful, and inevitably self-defeating.
There is nothing wrong with admiration.
Successful people are inspired, even motivated, by the greatness and innovation of others, even those whose talents and ideas exceed their own. They, however, allow themselves to learn from the disciplines, habits, and triumph of others and apply those techniques to their own goals.
Unsuccessful individuals typically get discouraged by the success or achievement of others. They become jealous or bitter when others rise and they do not.
These are the same people who tend to focus more on other's privilege or success 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.
When most writers are starting out, their writing isn’t that good, and they know it.
They have the eye, which allows them to see where their work is bad, but they compare their writing to the greats and allow the disparity in quality to discourage them instead of inspire them.
When we compare ourselves to those who’ve outpaced us and allow it to distract us, envy may have already taken hold.
When we compare ourselves to those we’ve outpaced, pride may be waiting in the wings.
In either case, comparison and envy can become self-imposed hurdles that prevent us from running our race or completing our best work. They cause 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 about all the ways we're not like someone else, that person continues to grow. They're not worried about us. They're focused on their goals. And in the end, the only person left behind is you.
So stop comparing yourself to those around you to the point of envy and self-defeat.
Learn to celebrate the success of others. Let it motivate and push you forward, but focus 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 for news, exclusive content, and more.
Thanks again. I'll see you soon.