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Sweet, Sweet Comparison

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We all compare and contrast constantly, whether we know it or not. It’s a hard thing to avoid - and not to sound elderly - but social media does impact the level to which we compare ourselves to others.

We see lots of articles written about 'compare and despair', and how social media usage can be somewhat-scientifically-ish linked to depression and anxiety. I believe it. Seeing a constant flood of how happy someone else is can be damaging to our psyche, our relationships, and our own sense of self-worth.

But people much smarter than myself have written about that already – so what I want to do is talk about comparison when it comes to our careers. And you can’t talk about professional comparison without talking about expectations. Expectations of ourselves, and others' expectations of us.

I think of expectations as goal posts set in stone as markers of success. If I do ‘X’, then I will be successful. Or, if I see someone else doing ‘X’, I’ll view them as successful. We reinforce these behaviours as we achieve success by celebrating ourselves (there’s that social media thing again), and by celebrating others. We look at someone who has just done ‘X’, and we immediately think ‘oh wow, good for them! Wait – why am I not doing that?’.

And for me - the hilarious thing, is I will look at three different people living completely different lives from one another, and I will think that about all of them! It looks like this: ‘Oh, that person is studying forensic anthropology in Uganda – they are really successful. Wait, why am I not doing that? I could do that’ versus ‘Oh, wow, that girl is living in Ecuador volunteering to maintain local farmland, and living in a hammock. Why am I not doing that?’ versus ‘Oh, that person is living in NYC and a freelance writer while stripping for cash. Why am I not doing that?’ (I don’t have the core strength).

Do you see how insane this is? And while I would like to think I’m special – I know other people make these comparisons as well. We look at people who are doing completely different things from one another, and because they meet some expectation we have of them and their success, we compare. Even if it’s something we have no interest in doing.

Now - these behaviours are manageable through mindfulness, self-compassion, and a heavy dose of Brené Brown. But what is a bit trickier, is when it gets really real. When we start to think about our career path, our own success, our own meaning. Maybe we’re struggling, we’re in that messy place where everything feels like it’s falling apart, and we look to someone else and think ‘how can they do this, and I can’t?’ The most harmful thing about this type of comparison is that it distracts us from our own path, and may even potentially derail us from pursuing what we want for ourselves. 

I work with some absolutely incredible and intelligent young women. Many of whom I’ve been friends with for several years, some of whom I even went to University with. They are all, by any measure, kicking ass in their careers. To be vulnerable for a second – I absolutely compare myself to these friends. Objectively, it may look like I’m doing alright too, but frankly, I can’t believe how messy things are around here! And when things are messy, that’s when we’re most likely to seek out validation of our fears. ‘I feel like a failure – let me go look at so-and-so’s Instagram of them accepting an award for 30 under 30 to reaffirm that I am indeed, failing.’ When in reality, things being messy can be a sign you’re doing something right, or at least, on a path to find your own meaning.

And it’s also important to remember this very easy-to-forget fact, we are all different people. Sure, maybe we had similar upbringings, or studied similar degrees, but we’re actually all different. And, here’s the kicker, as we get older and we become more grounded in who we are, our differences become more apparent. We start to build our identity, and if we’re lucky, we start to intentionally nurture the parts of us that feel like ‘us’. We start to put time and energy into things we care about – like understanding what it means to be an introvert, or questioning if our line of work matches up to our belief system.

These are exciting stages of growth, but it’s very hard to see it while it’s happening. It’s like the first day of high school, when it’s apparent half the class grew like 4 feet over summer holidays. We looked in the mirror everyday, but we only noticed the growth once we were all together again. COMPARING OURSELVES. There it is.

So, what does it all mean? Well, it means that as you grow as a human being and continue to nurture who you are and who you want to be – you may actually diverge from a path that is right for others, but not right for you. Similarly, they are diverging from your path - because they too are nurturing and becoming who they are. So comparison doesn’t hold any water. It’s easy to say, ‘ but Suzy Q and I started at this company on the same day, with the same background, and the same interests – and now she’s the VP of Unicorns, and I’m having an existential crisis!’ Well yes, because you are different people. It doesn’t make you any less of a human, and it doesn't make you a failure. It means you are now in the arena, you are wrestling with hard shit, and you have some decisions to make. And guess what? Suzy Q has either done this already, or will have to in the future as well.

And that’s where the opportunity is! To support one another instead of comparing. To listen, and not judge. To grab a cup of coffee, sit down for four hours, and say “shit, me too”. It’s healthy to hear about the struggles and real shit someone else is going through. It reminds us that we’re all human, we’re all growing, and there are very real pains associated. And you'll be surprised how much your fog of self-doubt lifts once you allow yourself to be vulnerable, and put words to your struggle. You may even find you're better able to focus on what you want for your own life, and why you want it.

We view the paths of others as neatly cropped, freshly paved, two lane highways through miles of Instagrammable mountains, lakes, vineyards, fresh cut peonies, and monstera plants. While we view our own paths as pothole ridden, never-ending motion-sick-inducing spiralling roads choc full of dead-ends, one-way streets, and red lights.

But – in retrospect, our paths will look intentionally chaotic, meaningful, and adventurous. Try your best not to compare your current messy path with the hindsight view of someone else's. 

I think this illustration from Mari Andrew sums it up nicely: