The horizon. Picture by James Shih.
Each time a New Year arrives, I see people on social media doing their year in review as well as making a list of New Year's resolutions. Watching these posts causes this burgeoning resentment: maybe I'm not living my life to the fullest. I can't help but compare where I'm at in relation to others, be it relationships, skill level, career, finances, etc... This cocktail of comparison gets me depressed in a single sip.
I had a conversation with my sister recently and we were talking about making our parents proud. I told her it was like chasing the horizon, that no matter what we did, our parents were geniuses at still finding something wrong with our lives. She shared:
"The thing about the horizon is that no matter how far you travel towards it, it's always the same distance away."
Just before New Year's, I thought about all the areas of my life that I was not satisfied with. I could not fault the friends and content creators I follow on social media for this feeling. This frustration was born out of my own reaction and attitude.
It became evident that the more I compared myself to others, the more dissatisfaction I felt. And instead of it motivating me to change, this feeling froze me and made me feel fear and apathy. It's hard to stop comparing ourselves to others. But where did we learn this behavior?
It's something many of our parents do. A sample one-way parent conversation could be: "You know our neighbor's kid? Yeah, the one who swam better than you in middle school. He got married and just bought a house. Anyways, how much are you paying for rent again?"
I get it, parents are learning how to parent on the job. Mine had the added pressure of trying to adjust the parenting lessons they learned from their parents in Taiwan to apply to their Asian American kids in the U.S. Some of it translated well, some of it didn't. It's really tough and they used comparison as a way to gauge how they're doing. But, we can't blame our parents for everything, this act of benchmarking ourselves to others is an integral part of human psychology.
Child. Photo from James Shih.
Another part of human psychology is this need to learn and grow. As a child, I remember this joy I felt when I learned a new melody on the piano or when I first saw the defined muscles on my forearm after karate practice. This moment of discovery is pure, it presents itself after hard work and is unexpected. These moments of wonder appear as we approach things with an open mind and not worry so much about failure or how we compare to others.
This approach is referred to in Suzuki Rōshi's book A Beginner's Mind. It's also called the "un-carved block" in The Tao of Pooh. The idea is to have the mind of a beginner each time you approach a practice, no matter how long you've been doing it; to see things as fresh and with multiple possibilities instead of the mind of an expert that is rigid and fixed.
I looked back on the frustration I felt about myself and the main reason was that I compared myself to someone that it felt impossible to catch up to. For language learning, I would compare myself to a friend that spoke multiple languages fluently. For martial arts, as a child I compared myself to a young karate sensei. But now that I passed the age he was when he taught me, I'm still not close to his skill level. For filmmaking, I feel proud to have completed a short film, but I see others younger than me making features and that gets me down.
Using rivalry as a way to better yourself (i.e. the Sasuke/Naruto model) may work for some, but for me it only works in the short term. The suffering I feel staring at the abyss of where I'm at to where others are, is crushing.
A way that has been helpful for me is to reframe the situation: instead of seeing others as competition, it's to see them as teachers and colleagues. By humbling myself to ask for advice and to not discount myself by also sharing what I know, I'm aiming for something that is bigger than myself, that is bigger than them–it is the craft itself. As Bruce Lee said, "It's like a finger pointing away to the moon. Do not concentrate on the finger or you will miss all of the heavenly glory."
Tree and sunlight. Photo by James Shih
If you have to compare yourself to someone, "compare yourself to who you were yesterday" one of only a few things I agree with Jordan Peterson on. This sentiment is also shared in the book Switch in which the authors ask people to frame their progress in an area of their life from 1 to 10. Even if the person says 2.5, they should celebrate that achievement. Why? Because it means at one point they were zero, but now they've made it all the way to 2.5, that is something to be proud of. You can develop this positive thinking into a daily practice by writing out how you've improved each day, no matter how minuscule the improvement is. This is similar to chronicle journaling which I learned about from Kaki Okumura's excellent article Comparing Yourself to Others is So Stupid.
Another mindset that encourages me to improve, is to find joy in the learning process. It's the practice itself. I look for what interests me and how creative I can make the process be. By doing this, I'm rediscovering why I wanted to pursue certain subjects in the first place. For language learning, it's to travel to foreign countries and connect directly with the locals. For martial arts, it's a path of continuous self-actualization. For filmmaking, it's a love for telling stories and connecting with others.
Zen teachers Peter and Jane Schneider, students of Suzuki Rōshi, talk about how the mind can create delusions and negative thoughts that are completely divorced from the act itself. It is the "small mind" that seeks to be better than others in order to feed its ego. It is the "big mind" that does things as a pure expression of your true nature: like a bird singing in the morning, a tree reaching for the sun, a human being seeking connection.
Instead of approaching life with the mindset of how you should be in comparison to others, you can choose to rediscover that child-like wonder, that expression of your own nature. It is this beginner's mind, a mind of genuine curiosity, that allows you to be present with the pure act of doing, to just be.
In this way there is joy.