The Comparison Conundrum

Part of being human is looking around you at all the other humans out there and wondering to yourself how similar and how different you really are.

It’s how we create our own sense of identity and how we come into our own. The danger, though, is spending too much time qualifying those differences as better or worse.

You know what I’m talking about because you may have done in just a few minutes ago (or at least once today and multiple times this past week). You and I took a look at someone else’s project, someone else’s blog, someone else’s venture or business and you said to yourself (or aloud), “they are succeeding where I am failing” and you pity your own circumstance and fortune.

If you’re anything like me then you may have even taken the thought a step further and gone so negative that you actually considered quitting and giving up on your own work because of the comparisons that you made.

You feel utterly defeated and you start seeing the track of cynicism and extreme doubt crop up. You feel joyless around the things that have given you joy even if only a few hours ago you were feeling unstoppable. It was as if this new piece of news, this new piece of information shattered your worldview in an instant.

The internet, at least for me, doesn’t help as I have access to all the news of an infinite number of success stories that are happening in real-time as well as everything that’s happened since the beginning of time. Spend too long in those ditches and it’s very difficult to come out feeling anything but fantastic.

This is the “comparison trap” or as I call it “conundrum” because part of how we all do work and live and play is through the act of comparison which is a vitally important part of doing all of life. It’s a conundrum because it can give life-giving perspective and inspiration and yet at the very same time take you to the gates of hell on the chariots of envy and jealousy.

Yes, of course you and I want others to be successful but if we’re honest with ourselves we don’t want them to be successful at the cost of us losing our tenuously-balanced self-perception of where we are and where we want to be. It’s a losing battle and it’s one I find myself in often (and it’s my own fault, I’ll admit).

So how does one eject themselves from this cycle of deceit and malcontent? I don’t know how you do it but I know how I accomplish this task: I simply talk through it with people that matter, that listen, and that care about me and the work that I do. The list of people has admittedly gotten smaller over the years as I’ve discovered that the truest of friends are very hard to come by but I think the list should be small to begin with.

My wife especially knows that when I get “in” that cycle there’s no way can reach me or get through to me – it’s like a virus that just needs to “work itself out” as I wrestle with it internally, personally, and passionately. As I walk into the “clear” she’s able to approach me and a decent and logical dialogue can be established. She (and a few others) are able to shoot through the bullshit and self-destroying arguments and help me see them as fallacy. They are able to find logic in the churn of an emotional hurricane.

I reject the notion and the adage that one should just “stop the comparison game” and get on with living as I don’t see that as a possibility for anyone, especially those that are creatively bent. Our creativity and our expression of that creativity demands that we wrestle with the creative work of others so that we can encounter our own work’s intrinsic merit.

The question is not whether we should or should not wrestle but rather how we interpret that the mental cage match and how well we wrestle. Is it fruitful? Are we able to leave it with value in hand? It doesn’t matter if we lose or win as much as it matters that we survive.