“Don’t Compare Yourself to Others” – The Envy Problem

“Don’t compare yourself to others.”

It’s common advice. When you compare yourself to others, you are “comparing your insides to someone else’s outsides.” When you compare yourself to others, you’re more likely to become motivated by extrinsic, shallow reasons (fame/status/wealth) than intrinsic, sustainable reasons (meaning/purpose). When you compare yourself to others, you kill your joy.

Indeed, Leo Babuta says, “One of the biggest reasons we’re not content with ourselves and our lives is that we compare ourselves to other people.” He analogizes the issue to running in the park and seeing someone run past you. It’d be silly, Babuta says, to conclude, “Gosh, he’s a faster runner than me, and therefore better than me!” You have no idea how far he’s running, where he is in his particular run, what training plan he’s on, etc. Better to just focus on your own run. Learn about yourself as you run. Focus on your journey.

But it’s more complicated than this. You can benefit when you compare yourself to someone else. For example, what if the person who runs past you in the park sports a running technique that’s superior to your own and that you could adopt with success? What if the person running faster wears a certain kind of shoes that you could buy for yourself? What if his training plan offers valuable insight that you might incorporate into your own training plan?

When you compare yourself to others, you might be inspired to run faster in life. Better yet, you can get ideas for how to run faster. The best way to achieve expertise in anything is to study the masters, deconstruct their techniques (by comparing your techniques to their own), and consider adopting their best practices into your own routine.

I believe what people really mean when they say “Don’t compare yourself to others” is “Don’t let yourself get consumed by envy. Be the best version of yourself, not someone else.” It’s the second order effect of comparing yourself to someone else that’s the dangerous thing. Thus, the advice would be better stated: “Don’t let yourself get consumed by envy.”

Envy sucks. It really does cause unhappiness. It’s important to remember, though, that you don’t feel envy when Bill Gates has a big success. He’s so different from you and me. You also don’t feel envy as much when someone achieves great success in a wildly different life pursuit. So when do you feel envy?You feel envy when someone who is roughly the same age/location/life stage/life situation as you achieves something similar to your goal in your field of choice.

Hence, the dilemma: how do you learn from successful people without being consumed by envy for what they have?

Here’s a perhaps radical approach.

First, study the lessons from successful peers in adjacent fields. If you’re a development director at a non-profit, study the career of and compare yourself to a director of finance at a fast-growing startup. If you’re a young doctor, study the career of a peer at a biotech company.

Second, study the lessons of people in your direct line of work but who are way, way ahead of you. Compare yourself to him or her. If you’re a software entrepreneur, study Bill Gates’ life and career. Or anyone else who’s 10-15 years ahead of you. Learn, learn, learn by comparing, comparing, comparing to a party elder. Read biographies.

Third, if you find yourself nevertheless obsessing over your direct peers fighting in the ring next to you — and, because we’re wired to obsess with where we rank in our tribe, it’s a hard instinct to suppress — then create a tribe of one. Forge a life so idiosyncratic that it’d be silly to compare yourself head-on to someone else. Take the path less traveled. Adopt a unique life philosophy. Do something crazy.

If you do something common, you have lots of direct comparisons. If you go to law school and become a young attorney, there’ll be thousands of people right next to you, neck and neck in the race of life, and their success will almost certainly trigger biting jealousy. They are like you in every way…except they succeeded.

Do something uncommon, and it’s hard to make the case — in your own mind, anyways — that it’s an apples-to-apples comparison. When you compare yourself to someone who by strict demographics may be a peer — by age, race, location, etc. — you have a narrative in your head that’s envy-repellent: “I can’t compare myself to him. I spent two years in my 20′s surfing in Costa Rica while he climbed the corporate totem pole.” Or: “Unlike many, I’ve chosen a flexible work schedule so I can play with my kids and husband on the weekends. This comes with tradeoffs. No one else at my company has arranged their schedule in this way. ”

Bottom Line: Comparing yourself to others is a great way to learn. Just make sure you compare yourself to people who are sufficiently different or sufficiently ahead of you so that your drive to soar will come from genuine inspiration instead of envy. That takes imagination. Better yet, carve a life so unique that there won’t be reasonable direct comparison points. Then you can freely stitch together whatever you learn from others into a life that’s all your own. That takes courage.