We are human. We learn by observing others. It is natural to look at another person and assess their behaviours against our own. In some ways, this can help us to become a greater person than yesterday. But I do not think I am alone in the fact that oftentimes, comparisons can become self-destructive.
So and so got into a post-grad program early. So and so has a 4.0 GPA and a stellar list of extracurriculars. So and so has a lab position under a prestigious supervisor. So and so has nicer clothes. A better family background. More confidence. More popularity. Less problems. A healthy relationship. More money. They have such great balance in their lives. How do they do it all? Why can’t I be like them?
What is wrong with this picture? Why can’t we figure ourselves out and be like… so and so?
Photo by Ariel Lustre
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1. We all have a unique life path, yet we are forced to constantly keep up with the ‘next best’ thing.
Well, if you are like me, then you are also probably the only person in the world that has travelled exactly your path through life. When comparing oneself to others, it becomes easy to discount all the wonderful aspects of yourself that make you shine. We cannot have all of the traits and experiences that we perceive another person to have. That would be impossible. Nor can we expect any two people, longitudinally, to have the same dreams, ideals, values, experiences, and feelings that shape behaviours.
So why do we compare ourselves to another person who has lived their lives differently? Well, we are programmed through society into a culture of more – that is, we constantly feel the desire (not need) to keep up with all of the shiny, new material goods and the ‘best’, ‘most worthwhile’ paths to take in life. Says who? Certainly not who matters the most in your path through life. Probably more people who want to sell something to you as being a quick fix to your perceived problems.
Let me tell you something though. It is perfectly natural to want more. This is because we are naturally wired to search for the ‘best’ solution to all of our problems, and we are fed false information about what this ‘best’ solution might be every day of our lives. As Neil Pasricha puts it in his bestselling novel, “The Happiness Equation”, we are constantly at war with ourselves. Our amygdala is the part of the brain that scans for problems around us and makes us focus in on those problems, puts us into fight-or-flight mode and aims ultimately to resolve the problems as quickly as possible. Our frontal cortex is the part of our brain that is telling us to chillaaax and assess our options carefully (Neil calls it the “serenity-now mood tape”). In other words, our first instinct is to rush and solve problems using the first available solution. In this microwave society, of course that solution includes doing the least amount of work to get the most perceived profit. We are surrounded by a society that shows us only the best of each world. Social media perpetuates the (FALSE) notion that everyone in the world has it all together – except you.
2. There is so much to so and so than you know.
Regardless of what you might think, absolutely no one is perfect. Not many people really ‘have it all together’. Everyone has their own personal struggles, and they are often going through things you could never imagine. Now we all know that social media is a breeding ground for deception. What we see on a social media profile are snapshots of the best of each of us. The times we spent with our friends, family, and significant others. The time we won an award, or went to a championship, or submitted art to a gallery. A piano recital. A dance routine. A song cover. These are beautiful and valuable experiences, but ultimately when threaded together on a timeline, they paint an incomplete picture of one’s life.
The truth is, we are all a little broken in some way. We’re all a little weird in other ways. And we have all had our failures. I promise you, every single one of us has failures we would rather not show the world.
I am definitely not perfect. I once quit a physics summer class in high school purely because I got less than a 90% on the first test (mind you, the failure here was giving up so quickly, not the mark I received). I also came in almost last place in a math contest in grade 11. I have cried countless times because I received less than a perfect grade on a test or a quiz. I have never had a piano recital without at least a couple of jarring mistakes. During my first sax solo performance in high school, the band had to speed the tempo up because I was so anxious that I sped through my entire solo. I have spent way too much time trying to hide all my weaknesses that I missed out on what would have been some very valuable and character-building experiences. I moved schools every year for six years in my childhood, and I am convinced that this fuelled my perfectionism (maybe I’ll tell more about that later). I am a pianist and a sax player, but I struggle to get myself to play my beloved instruments because I cannot play them ‘perfectly’. And of course, I am suffering from some mental illnesses that I am working through everyday. Some days, I wake up feeling so down that the greatest achievement I have that whole day is getting out of bed to eat one meal (depression). Other times, I avoid ordering food or going to social gatherings because I am too terrified of making a mistake in public (social anxiety disorder).
Point is…these are not things I usually would tell just anyone. I’m certain I’m not the only one who would rather the world not know their most embarrassing moments or their innermost dark secrets. I’m sure it is difficult to highlight one’s own successes, but it’s even harder to outline one’s failures or weaknesses. But things like these are a part of every person’s life, and I bet you that just like you and I, so and so’s failures and weaknesses run through their brains often as well. But hey, I’m all for imperfectionism. Our imperfections are sometimes the most interesting things about us. You know why? Because our imperfections are things we overcome in our own ways. That in and of itself requires inner strength and is a testament to our resilience. Our imperfections make us stronger because each ‘failure’ comes with a lesson. Each step back just winds us up for the next leap forward. And fears? It is okay to be afraid. It is also okay to not focus on alleviating certain fears right now. It is okay to be human. It is okay not to be perfect.
It is unfair to expect yourself to be perfect when every single person on this Earth is not perfect. So and so may have stellar grades, or great extracurriculars, or a nice background, or a fantastic list of volunteer experiences – but they are not perfect. Additionally, you are not them. You are you. And I say that that is beautiful. You are beautiful because of your uniqueness in your past, present, and future…and comparing an apple to a vacuum cleaner doesn’t make sense. (In case that analogy sucked: both have their functions, but are fundamentally different.)
Alright, so maybe you already have a pretty strong ability to avoid comparing yourself to others. But we can’t always change other people in our inner circle comparing us to others. Which brings me to my next point…
3. Sometimes the comparisons are forced upon us.
Ah, expectations. If it isn’t hard enough that we expect highly from ourselves, we also get the bombardment of external expectations. Parents. Teachers. Relatives. Friends. Unspoken sibling rivalries.
Again, I can only speak specifically for myself, so here I’ll relay some comparisons I’ve heard from those around me (toward me or toward another person).
You need to become a respectable, financially secure medical doctor. It is the only way you will be happy in this world.
You need to have hospital volunteering experience to get into medicine. And you need to get into medicine because then you’ll be set for life.
You need to have lab experience!! I heard that so and so is doing lab work; why aren’t you?
You’re an intelligent person who is good at school. It would be a waste for you not to go into medicine.
You want to go into that field? But there’s no money there! Be a doctor.
Wow, you need to live in that kind of house when you’re older. Then your kids will be happy. Points at in my opinion the most ridiculously unnecessarily large house in the TIME magazine
All the people in your program are going to become doctors. Why aren’t you?
You have no reason to have depression. There are so many people worse off than you. You need to be more grateful for what you have.
You don’t have social anxiety disorder. There are people who never talk at all, and it’s because they are shy, not because they have social anxiety disorder.
Some of these statements stem from pure ignorance, but I’m not one to throw a hissy fit about that because people will think what they will with the informational resources they have consumed or choose to consume. More importantly, you may notice that some of these comparisons do not have an explicit comparison person. But I maintain that they are, in fact, comparisons. This is because some of the above statements hold an underlying message that there is some mystical person out there who is more happy or more well-off than you because of something that they are a part of, or something that they own, or something they do with their time, that you currently are not interested in or doing. There are plenty of enriching, empowering experiences out there – just because you are not part of one does not mean you are wasting your time.
Even if there is one example or even two examples that you are compared against, it doesn’t make sense to compare you to those people. This is because the idea that they are somehow more happy or more well-off than you are or ever will be is purely a perception, and may not be reality. You have your own life experiences that have shaped you into who you are – and no one should expect that you need to be anyone but who you are at any given time. And how many of us have had the experience of being expected to go a certain career path because it is a sort of ‘hand-me-down’ dream from our parents or grandparents or older siblings? I think choosing a career path separate from external expectations requires its own post. So that’ll be one for the future. But for now, I really want to drill in the message that…happiness is not quantifiable and even its qualitative nature is determined by our own perceptions of the world and our place in it. Don’t let your grandparents, aunts, uncles, parents, or anyone tell you how you can be happy with yourself.
I want to close off with this amazing little anecdote from “The Happiness Equation”, because it was great food for thought for myself:
A boat is docked in a tiny fishermen’s village.
A tourist wearing expensive sunglasses and a fancy watch walks by an compliments a fisherman on the quality of his fish and asks how long it took him to catch them.
“Not very long,” answers the fisherman.
“But then, why didn’t you stay out longer and catch more?” asks the tourist.
The fisherman explains his small catch is enough to meet his needs and those of his family.
The tourist asks, “But what do you do with the rest of your time?”
“I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, and take a siesta with my wife. In the evenings, I go into the village to see my friends, have a few drinks, play the guitar, and sing a few songs. I have a full life.”
The tourist jumps in. “I have an MBA and I can help you! You should start by fishing longer every day. You can then sell the extra fish you catch. With the extra money, you can buy a bigger boat.”
“And after that?” asks the fisherman.
“With the extra money the larger boat will bring, you can buy a second one and a third one and so on until you have an entire fleet of trawlers. Instead of selling your fish to a middleman, you can then negotiate directly with the processing plants and maybe even open your own plant. You can then leave this little village and move to New York City! From there you can direct your huge new enterprise.”
“How long would that take?” asks the fisherman.
“Twenty or twenty-five years, at most,” replies the tourist.
“And after that?”
“After that? Well, my friend, that’s when it gets really interesting,” answers the tourist, laughing. “When your business gets really big, you can sell your company stock to the public and make millions!”
“Millions? Really? And after that?” asks the fisherman.
“After that you’ll be able to retire, live in a tiny village near the coast, sleep late, play with your children, catch a few fish, take a siesta with your wife, and spend your evenings drinking and playing guitar with your friends.”
As Neil says in his book…maybe you’ve already ‘won the lottery’ in terms of where your life is at. Just look more deeply at what you have right now, and what is important to you. Instead of going for the ‘next best thing’, maybe all you need is a clear idea of the life you want, unadulterated by the views and perceptions of other people. They are not you.
YOU are not ANYONE but YOURSELF. That is beautiful. There is no one nor will there ever be anyone exactly like you. Your life path is unique and doesn’t have to be affected so strongly by what others think is the ‘best’ way to live or the ‘next best thing’ to reach for. So and so’s set of experiences don’t match yours. So what? They are different from you. You have your own battles, they have theirs. Others can think what they want about where your life will lead in its current or a different trajectory based on what they see from other, different people from you, but ultimately you determine your own destiny.
So why don’t comparisons make sense? You tell me, you amazing, one-of-a-kind human being. You tell me.
Always remember to love (ARTL),