Be better than the person you were, not the person beside you
There seems to be something embedded in our natures that impels us to keep comparing ourselves with others. We are constantly looking over the fence, or across our shoulders, at what others are up to, what acclaim they are receiving, what numbers they are clocking. And then we feel that we might be falling short, and feelings of envy and inadequacy poison us.
In his combative book, 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson offers an antidote. Dr Peterson has become a controversial figure, and often seems to revel in the altercations that some of his views provoke. But in discussing personal growth, he is talking plain sense. First, he points out:
‘No matter how good you are at something, or how you you rank your accomplishments, there is someone out there who makes you look incompetent.’
Note the words: no matter how good, and incompetent. You could be widely acclaimed and applauded. Much of the world may think you’re the bees knees. Still, you will encounter someone so much better than you that you are left feeling not just inadequate, but actually incompetent. And that applies to all of us.
So if you live for the comparisons, you’re heading for a fall. There are many people smarter, prettier, wealthier and wiser than you out there. There always will be. If you’re not at peace with that, you will live a life haunted by feelings of resentment and inferiority.
I often get young business leaders telling me: I want to emulate Steve Jobs. I want to be like him, a bold innovator who changes his industry. I want to have his traits. To which I always say: if you want to be like Steve Jobs, I hope you have a time machine at hand that allows you to go back and be reborn as him. Because that’s the only way to be someone else. Mimicry and benchmarking don’t work.
Lives are complicated. The choices and decisions people make are influenced by a tangled knot of factors. Parenting, upbringing, schooling, milestone incidents, environment – all affect the person we become, the risks we tolerate, the resilience we develop. Our lives and circumstances are our own. It is very, very difficult to emulate others to any great effect.
You can’t take a few pieces from the jigsaw of someone else’s life and try to fit them into yours.
To endlessly compare yourself, to want to be like others, to play the game of mimicry is to be on a hiding to nothing. The comparisons will make you unhappy; and the copying just won’t work.
The antidote to this urge to compare is to change the comparator. Dr Peterson suggests that it is indeed important to evolve, to improve, to get better at things that are important to us. But our benchmark should not be anyone out there; the wiser way to think about this is to aim to be better than the person you were.
This makes a lot of sense. Our journeys are always personal, and there is only limited sense in comparing them with the journeys of others. Other people may enjoy advantages you do not have; equally, they may face deep challenges you have no comprehension of. The better form of evolution is to raise your own game, playing against your former self and your own unique situation. Develop your own jigsaw pieces; build a unique picture of your own life, one that you can gaze upon with satisfaction.
As a new year unfolds, tell yourself that you will be better this year than you were last year. Choose the domains of achievement yourself. You may want to master your work better; you may wish to make a greater impact in the lives of your clients or customers; you might want to lead better and grow others; you could decide to give your health more focus; you may conclude your family needs your attention. The choices are yours to make, with discernment. The point is: you choose your targets, based on your own assessment of your life. Don’t base your choices on the Facebook posts and Instagram lives of others.
We should all be on a journey to make ourselves calmer and wiser. To live a long life and yet die full of resentments is to have lived small.
(Sunday Nation, 3 February 2019)
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