Stop Comparing Your Career Journey to Others

Jon Hawkins

Am I a failure for not realizing my goals by 21?

The Beatles were 16 when they wrote their first song. Mark Zuckerberg started The Facebook” at just 19 years old. Now the same age, Billie Eilish has 50.2 million monthly Spotify listeners.

Here I am. At 22, I’ve graduated from University, and I’m now a freelance writer who runs a Philosophy publication with 200,000 monthly readers.

My greatest achievements are hardly worth mentioning compared to the history-defining accomplishments of people much younger than me. I haven’t sold millions of records around the world. I don’t own a billion-dollar business.

Is there some secret life-hack I’m missing? Am I past my best? Did my chances of success pass me by at 16? Or am I wrong to compare my life to the achievements I see in the media?

Peaking at Different Ages

Just as some of the greats achieved early on, others were late bloomers who gained notability later in life. Bryan Cranston was 44 when he starred in the career-defining Malcolm in the Middle. J.K. Rowling was 32 when, after multiple rejections, Harry Potter was finally published.

Some people spend years working to achieve what they do. Others get lucky and have access to the recourses and opportunities that help them shoot to success much quicker.

Regardless of how hard you work, there will always be factors outside your control that affect the result of your efforts. Maybe you’re close, but don’t quite have the natural abilities to be good enough. Or perhaps the right opportunity that will define your big break hasn’t come up yet.

There are very few things that we are naturally good enough to succeed at. We have to spend years practicing to get to where we want to be. And some people progress and learn at tasks faster than others. That might be why they achieve the desired results faster.

Just because someone achieved things quicker than you doesn’t mean you’re not on attract to reach your goals. It just means it’s not your time yet. Even when we are good enough, it takes just as long for that effort and ability to actually be recognized.

Maybe you need a bit more practice. Or maybe you are good enough, and just some luck in finding that big break. In either sense, you aren’t past your best, but you do need to work a little harder to prove yourself.

In the words of Julissa Loaiza (as quoted by Jay Shetty):

“… You’re not falling behind, It’s just not your time.”

Different Peaks

Success is a weird concept. It’s so subjective and can be found in almost anything. Because of that, you get to define what success means in your life. Maybe getting out of bed is a big deal. Or handing in that school assignment. Or singing in a stadium full of millions of people. We all have different circumstances and day-to-day challenges, and these set the parameters for what we consider a success.

No matter how big by comparison, other people's achievements cannot invalid yours. For they have different circumstances — for some affording food could be just as big a challenge as it was for Zuckerberg to design Facebook.

You could be aiming towards a completely different conception of success to others. In a similar vein, you could be moving towards the same conception, but be at an earlier stage of your journey.

Running an online publication with over 200,000 monthly readers is a success I often downplay. It’s not a revolutionary Social Media platform or a world-known pop song, but it is something I am immensely proud of.

Some people will be envious of my achievements, in the same way I am of my more successful peers. I’m not oblivious to that fact. But if you’re feeling envious of others' achievements, take a minute to acknowledge the heights you’ve already achieved. Achievements you once desired, which are admired by those on the same path who haven’t yet reached that checkpoint.

Different Goals & Priorities

Writing on Medium is an excellent example of goal prioritization. Some spend every minute of every day on here and rise to the top in 6 months. For others, like me, Medium is one among many of our goals and aspirations. I spend a few days a week on here, and it has taken me years to gain those results.

Some of us are working a 9–5 and a side-hustle at the same time. Others are students studying while writing on here. Some of us are parents who can’t afford to spend every minute of the day here.

In prioritizing a variety of tasks, we work towards several goals at once. Because of that, those goals take longer to reach than if they were pursued by someone with no other responsibilities.

In short: not everybody likes putting all their eggs in one basket. They prefer to do a variety of things, hedge their bets, and work towards multiple goals at once. While writing on Medium, I graduated from University and worked in a Marketing Agency. Doing so meant that (although they were a long time coming) I could experience the security of multiple successes, rather than just one.

Sure, Mark Zuckerberg founded a multi-billion dollar empire. But, for some, being a one-trick pony with one claim to fame could get a little boring. They would prefer to diversify and set multiple unrelated career goals, rather than just one.

Everything Is Not What It Seems

With my minimal experience, I’m sure if I tried to write, record, and film a song and music video it would probably suck. Yet music artists my age seem to do it effortlessly. How? Musicians aren’t filmmakers or photographers. Yet every piece of visual content they release is flawless.

Sure, these artists are good at their craft. They’re great musicians. But a lot of them are surrounded by people with years of experience, who will either advise or do the work on the artist's behalf.

Every public figure you see has a team behind them. The actions you see rarely come from humble beginnings and hard work, they come from corporate planning.

Some of your favorite artists give the illusion of humble beginnings. But even that could be a corporate strategy to make them more relatable. Consider the indie musician, Clairo, who apparently “rose to fame when she self-recorded tracks from her bedroom and released them on SoundCloud.” Yet, has failed to mention that her father is formerly the chief marketing officer at Converse, and has close connections with her current record label: Fader.

Now, I can’t be sure whether Clairo’s rise to fame “from her bedroom” was authentic or not. But my point stands. Most of the “quick success” you see in the media doesn’t come from the recipient. It’s completely fabricated by a team with years of experience.

The Tip of the Iceberg

A lot of us work damn hard to achieve our goals. And a lot of the artists we enjoy do too. Consider Tyler the Creator, for example. It took him 10 years to reach the fame we see today, after his initial track was received by just 46 people on release day.

The problem is, when comparing ourselves to others, we rarely take note of the amount of time and effort that person spent working before they reached the heights they have.

Thomas Oppong calls this phenomenon the Iceberg Illusion of success. People don’t see all the costs and sacrifices made beneath the surface to achieve the success we see today. We only see the end result.

And when that happens, some of us might try and replicate their actions for a few weeks, and then wonder why we haven’t got anywhere yet. And the truth is, it’s because it takes years to reach our desired goals.

The Takeaway

I’m 22 years old. Unlike people much younger than me, I haven’t founded a multi-billion dollar business, or written a song that’s being sold all around the world. Does that make me a failure?

As it turns out, I might be wrong to compare my current achievements with those that I see in the media:

  1. As figures like Bryan Cranston and J.K Rowling clearly prove, we all peak at different ages — if I’m not quite a success now, that doesn’t mean I won’t be. Similarly, we all have different definitions and conceptions of success; and no matter how big by comparison, other people’s achievements cannot invalid yours.
  2. We all have different goals and priorities. Some of us aim at multiple goals at once — and when we do, it takes us longer to achieve each one, compared to someone focused on fewer goals and responsibilities.
  3. Things aren’t always as they seem. The “quick success” you see is often disingenuous, and the result of years of planning, hard work, and practice. It’s no surprise you haven’t achieved your goals, for they take years for anyone and everyone to reach.

Wherever you are in your journey, stop comparing yourself to others. Stop downplaying the success you do have, no matter how small. Stop questioning whether you’re past your peak.

Remember that your present achievements don’t define you. You have your life to realize your goals, and you’re going to reach heights you can’t even dream of right now. As Theodore Roosevelt once said:

“Comparison is a thief of joy”

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Asking questions, seeking answers. I write articles that help you better understand the Universe. Durham University.


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