The frequently given advice to not compare yourself with others and only to who you were yesterday never quite satisfied me. It still left a lot of questions unanswered and I recently discovered on Reddit many other people feel the same way.
In a recent post on r/productivity, there were some top comments refuting this advice with how they actually like to use jealousy, greed, and wanting to be better than other people as motivation to achieve “greatness.” Not only is comparing yourself to others the wrong way to achieve true greatness, so is comparing yourself to who you were yesterday.
Being better than who you were yesterday should be the bare minimum you strive for, because it doesn’t allow you to achieve what you’re fully capable of.
And it doesn’t confirm you’re on the right path to begin with. On its own, “compare yourself to who you were yesterday” is only feel-good advice that has very little practical usefulness.
And that’s why there’s some rationality behind why we tend to compare ourselves to others. You can see in your physical or digital circle who the low achievers are and who the high achievers are — giving you the missing benchmark of effort and success. But in the end, it’s a terrible benchmark that will have devastating effects on your life.
Comparing Yourself to Others Leads You to False Paths
In 2009, I was introduced to and befriended a very successful guy who day traded for a living. I didn’t know anything about the world of finance, but seeing the success he had and hearing how much he would make in any given day was exhilarating. As time went on, my benchmark for effort and success expanded to include his. I began to compare what I had achieved to him. “Success” now meant nothing short of what he had achieved.
I told myself I needed to do everything I could to achieve that level of success. I decided to learn how to be a day trader and I went so far as to sell my dream car to get the cash to do it. With studying and his mentorship, I started to make a few hundred dollars per week. As my confidence and greed grew, I became less risk-averse. Half a year later, my losses totaled close to $10k. I closed my account and threw my dreams of riches and day trading out the window.
When I started to compare myself to him, and what I had to what he had, it led me to abandon my path and join the path that made him successful. I never had any prior interest in stocks or studied the financial markets. I was just chasing the money and that led to disaster.
Using others as a benchmark for success can lead to conformity — it can take you away from what you’re happy and good at doing and put you on a false path — chasing money, status, or attention.
This is a never ending trap. There will always be someone to compare yourself to with more money, more status, and more fame that will lead you off your path.
“Everyone gets one life. Yours is almost used up, and instead of treating yourself with respect, you have entrusted your own happiness to the souls of others.”
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Understand Fate and Luck Always Play a Significant Role in Someone’s Success
Each one of us is a completely unique individual with a unique genetic makeup. We’re all raised by different people, with different values, and in different environments — all of which significantly impact our character and what we do in life.
People will shout, “you can do anything you set your mind to” or “you just need to work harder” or “you’re not sacrificing enough.” Nat Eliason made some noise when he called out Gary Vaynerchuk as an example of someone who does this in a piece he wrote titled No More “Struggle Porn.”
While we do need to have ruthless discipline to reach our greatest potential, we cannot ignore the limits imposed on us by the cards we’re dealt or we will forever be dissatisfied with who we are and what we’ve accomplished.
Here’s another reason why it doesn’t make sense to compare ourselves to others: luck. No one’s success is ever only down to luck, but we can’t ignore the role luck plays in success as an “x” factor — it’s unmanageable and unpredictable. The only thing in your control is to continually put yourself in positions to catch lucky breaks. And remember: luck is not distributed evenly.
In a Q&A with White House interns, President Obama gave advice on the subject luck has with success and what to focus on instead:
“A lot of times, it’s just happenstance. Or things work out. But being useful? And having a satisfying life? And making a contribution? That is entirely within your control. Orient yourself towards having an impact and making a difference. And you will and you’ll be happy doing it.”
Former President Barack Obama, YouTube
Instead of Comparing Yourself to Others Or Who You Were Yesterday, Find Your True Path
Productivity is worthless if you’re on a false path. Your goal and motivation shouldn’t be about just being the best or better than the people in your circles, but creating something useful that can make a difference in peoples’ lives and your community. This is the truest benchmark for success and effort.
“People who labor all their lives but have no purpose to direct every thought and impulse toward are wasting their time — even when hard at work.”
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Your true path is doing what you were made for — what you feel you have an inclination and natural ability for. This inclination is a reflection of your unique genetic code, deep underlying preferences for particular activities or forms of expression. When you find your true path, you’ll be less inclined to compare your success with someone else. You will quickly realize their path isn’t a good fit for you. And you won’t be as inclined to envy their money, attention, or whatever, because craving those things is a false path.
“In the end, the money and success that truly last come not to those who focus on such things as goals, but rather to those who focus on mastery and fulfilling their Life’s Task.”
Robert Greene, Mastery
The need to compare yourself to others is restrained when you’re happy and comfortable with who you are, which comes from being on your true path and working on your Life’s Task. You will no longer envy other peoples’ success and happiness, and you will instead be laser-focused on your own work.
“Don’t aim at success — the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself…”
Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
But you can’t be disciplined, happy, and confident all the time. I’ve made journaling a daily habit of mine to give myself the opportunity to reflect on and ground my thoughts. It’s an exercise that has helped me live a more level-headed and purposeful life.
“Ignoring what goes on in other people’s souls — no one ever came to grief that way. But if you won’t keep track of what your own soul’s doing, how you can you not be unhappy?”
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Comparing yourself to others is a recipe for disaster. Comparing yourself to who you were yesterday is a recipe for passivity. Life is not about being better than other people. It’s not about achieving more than people in our circles. Life is about being useful to others.
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