A common, tired parlance in the world of personal development is to never compare yourself to others.
The intent is honorable; the advice is terrible.
There is a self-aggrandizing belief that you never need “suffer” from viewing your work next to someone else’s. This thinking stems from the fact that it is difficult to recognize what makes for a healthy, constructive comparison and what makes for a toxic one.
A healthy comparison is looking at great work and analyzing its parts. This stuff doesn’t appear out of thin air. Even the wunderkinds of the world are not taking dictation from God. What ends up on the canvas is the result of unique talent, experience, and deliberate effort. Study it.
You cannot deliver excellence until you’ve felt its presence. As Stephen King would say of his craft:
You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.
Analyzing brilliance serves as a reminder of what is still possible. If you care only for ego, this is disheartening. If you care about the work, this is invigorating—how lucky you should be to have so much left to hone and experience.
The mistakes we make
Keeping up with the Joneses is a poisonous, self-destructive form of comparison because it constantly benchmarks results.
How well some author’s book sold. How much some entrepreneur made on an acquisition. How flawlessly some musician played at a show. How awesome someone’s Instagram page looks (barf). We stay glued to other people’s results, even though they have nothing to do with us.
The only comparison that you can learn and benefit from is the craft.
Results are too variable. Luck and the chaotic nature of the universe will do as they please. Sharpening your creative edge, however, is under your ownership. The best way to improve is to study those who are at a level you would like to someday reach.
Many talented people become judge, jury, and executioner for their work because they see “the greats” and demotivate themselves by dwelling on how they will never mirror such virtuosity.
They have it all wrong. Comparing your work isn’t about being the best, it’s about being the best you are able.
Averting your gaze from others may save your ego but it comes at the cost of never learning anything from them. Setting standards that you must replicate is impossible—results are fluid and do different things for different people. The goal of comparison is merely to raise the bar that keeps you moving forward.
Constructive comparison is not reading “8 Things All Successful People Do,” or any similar schlock. Constructive comparison is being an aspiring essayist and studying the works of John McPhee. Purpose, direction, learning; ego-bruising and vicarious living need not apply.
The goal isn’t to duplicate process, but understand impact. The reaction. You will often learn more studying the work than you will listening to the creator describe how it came to be.
Have a role model. Study the best. Demand more. Someday, if you’re lucky, a creative idol may become a creative rival.