“Don’t compare yourself to others.” It is probably one of the worst pieces of ‘good advice’ I see being thrown around on the regular. Why is it so bad? It’s in our nature to compare ourselves with our peers. It allows us to be accountable, feel a sense of community, progress in life, and achieve our goals. However, the other end of the spectrum is a feeling of isolation, the pressure to conform, and depression. The advice obviously tries to target this, and this is where it falls short.
Let’s take some actually good advice that you’ve, without a doubt, heard time and time again.
You are the average of the 5 people you spend time with the most
When assessing the deeper implications, this piece of advice completely contradicts ‘not comparing yourself with others.’
The whole reason why surrounding yourself with better people actually improves your productivity, work, and life is that the standard gets raised right up. If you’re spending time with people who work 9–5, talk about their careers regularly, and love drinking/partying on the weekends — you will get roped into that type of lifestyle. It’s not good or bad; it’s just what happens.
Trying to have a conversation about the struggles of entrepreneurship with these people won’t yield anything. No one will understand where you’re coming from, and you’ll have no point of comparison. Your idea of success will need to be related to your career progression to even be comparable. And you know what, your priorities will shift until you’re also talking about your career progression. Meanwhile, a business owner is pushing themselves to a 50k/month turnover and has a community that mentors them, celebrates their achievements, and allows them to compare their experiences.
This shouldn’t be mistaken for toxic comparison or toxic competition. Self-destructive patterns, declines in mental state, and rash & illogical decisions result from this toxicity type. That’s why we need to chase after and advocate for comparison, competition, and self-reflection that’s productive and not toxic. Avoiding comparing altogether is as bad as comparing destructively.
Toxic Comparison vs. Productive Comparison
The simplest way to segregate the two can be found in the differences in the method of thinking or the logic that defines them.
Toxic Comparison and Competition stems from
- 🏃 Being extrinsically motivated
- 😵 Falling for false definitions of success
- 👍 Measuring progress with vanity metrics
- 💰 Putting pressure on yourself by trying to replicate other results
Productive Comparison and Competition stems from
- ❤️ Being intrinsically motivated and not letting external factors sway you
- 🏆 Creating your own definitions of success and sense of what’s important
- 📏 Measuring progress with metrics that directly influence your definition of success
- 📚 Learning from others, instead of trying to replicate others’ success
The toxic comparison will make you feel anxious because your friends are doing better, will have you chasing a higher salary even when you have enough or it’s a field you hate, it’ll have you constantly puffing your chest and when you realize it’s not as big as your neighbors— it’ll deflate leaving you depressed.
The productive comparison will give you the ability to root for others’ success because if they can prove it can be done, so can you. It encourages you to learn from others’ success and failure, comparing it with your own journey from a detached and impersonal perspective. It empowers you to weigh up metrics and performance indicators that matter and ignore those that don’t.
Becoming Intrinsically Motivated
What’s something you do that you feel satisfaction for, regardless of getting anything from anyone for it? Something that you have the motivation to engage in because it just naturally satisfies you? That is being intrinsically motivated.
Doing something solely for external reward while discarding internal rewards is a sure-fire way to fall into defining your worth based on others. It opens the floodgates to toxic comparison, and you know what, you never feel fulfilled.
If you’re not passionate about the business you run, the music you create, the videos you produce, the articles you write, the work you do, et cetera ad infinitum — You will likely be miserable and have a high chance of failure.
You see this every day. Miserable journalists being forced to write “TOP 10 PUPPIES” articles to appease metrics, entrepreneurs starting businesses in AI or Crypto because it’s “hot,” aspiring filmmakers that would rather make short dramas, posting high energy in-your-face YouTube vlogs because that’s what’s doing well in the ecosystem.
Whatever success these people find will not be worth the miserable and passionless work that goes into it.
And please don’t take this as passion, meaning loving every second of it. Ask any successful writer/artist/self-made person, and they’ll tell you all about the struggle, the misery, the sheer workload, and in some cases, horrible self-loathing that can be involved with the process.
And that’s literally it.
How could these people get to where they are if they weren’t intrinsically invested in what they were doing? You need to be that motivated to succeed in some of these things that you’re willing to go through such pain. Being intrinsically motivated gives you that power, such that even the bad times are just good in disguise.
Finding Your Idea Of Success
You could point to Elon Musk and say he’s successful. You could point to a single parent putting food on the table and saying they’re successful. It’s all subjective, and the subject is you, so you get to decide what success looks like.
If success to you is doing what you love and just getting by, having a great family life, making a million dollars, or any one of an infinite variety of goals, and you achieve that goal, you’re successful.
Other people can have an opinion, and you can take that opinion at face value and treat it like it’s your own if you like. When you do, you’ve given up all power when it comes to being your own person and being fulfilled.
If you instead take that opinion with a grain of salt, whether it’s a good opinion or a bad opinion, and look at it critically, you’ll have a much better idea of where you stand from the viewpoint of the particular person, group, community or society at large.
You can then productively compare that with what you hold as a true success, the definition of which is true to you regardless of anyone’s opinion.
This will do wonders in helping you deconstruct how people think, what people value, who your friends are, and why people do what they do. It’s almost funny how people react to things you do, regardless of whether or not it affects them in any way.
Taking the Vanity out of Vanity Metrics
Vanity metrics are metrics that give yourself and anyone else that cares a false sense of what’s true when assessing progress.
Having 100k Instagram followers means absolutely nothing if each one of your photos is getting only 1000 likes or 5 comments. Yet a boastful person would call themselves a successful influencer, or worse yet, they would do this completely believing they are.
We collectively need to find what actually drives our results. You can have assumptions, and sometimes they may be half right, but it isn’t until you find a direct correlation between actions and results that you’ll understand which metrics actually matter.
Going to the gym and pushing out 5–6 quick repetitions of a heavyweight may stroke your ego because “I’m benching 100kgs man.” But dropping down some kgs relative to what you’re pushing, and actually going slow, controlled and deep, will leave you absolutely dead by the time you’re done. No, you haven’t done “the max you can do,” but you’ve had such an effective workout that you’ll progress much faster than most.
You’ve found out that the maximum weight is a vanity metric. The actual metric pushing you forward is maximum weight while maintaining perfect form, control, deep full-range movement — 3 seconds up, 3 seconds down.
You can see this come up in all facets of life. Writing them down really shows how vane they really are:
- Salary as a dollar figure being used as a metric for professional success
- Number of sexual partners dictating ‘romantic’ success
- Number of books sold being equivalent to how well the author writes
- An army of startups masking the reality of their success by reporting revenue without mentioning margins, active users without mentioning time spent in-app, user growth without mentioning retention.
The list goes on and on. The most heartbreaking effect being that aspiring professionals, entrepreneurs, and creatives look at these metrics and feel the need to chase them to achieve their aspirations and ambitions. The toxic comparison creeps again…
Although the world may tell you what’s valuable and what matters, always be skeptical. If you’re in doubt about the nature of the metrics, ask yourself, does this directly correlate to the result I’m after? If the answer is no, it’s most likely a vanity metric. If it’s somewhat, it’s close to the truth but not quite there. If the answer is yes, hallelujah, that’s the metric you’re after.
The Student vs. The Copy Cat
It’s tempting to start a journey to follow the instructions of someone who’s made it before yourself, versus taking some of the knowledge and carving your own path.
When you leave yourself vulnerable and open to being mentored, it’s quite easy for that to turn into being managed. Think about a job you’ve had where your manager has given you responsibility, and you’ve needed to make all the calls. Such a job allows you to approach the problem using the skills you’ve gathered and use a more experienced resource when you need it.
Now think about a job where the manager has given you detailed instructions on what to do, to the point of being micromanaged. You stop thinking critically; you only see one path to doing something, all your common sense goes out the window, and you don’t actually learn anything.
You don’t need a manager for this to happen to you on the regular. You could be taking an online course about using Fulfillment By Amazon to make a living; assuming the course has merit, you’re still probably not going to become successful doing the same thing as the other 10,000 people that took the course.
You learn and carve your own path. Walking the beaten path might be comfortable, but it’s been beaten the hell out of, and all the roses have been smelt. There’s no harm in walking halfway and taking a detour to get somewhere your own way.
Attempting to replicate other people's success only fosters toxic comparison, which in turn makes you take actions that you otherwise wouldn’t. It locks your perspective and doesn’t allow the type of free-flow thinking that will lead you to the result you desire.
In summary, comparing yourself with others is natural and good. It means you’re trying to do well, you’re not complacent, and you’ve got aspirations. You need to focus on making this productive and not toxic.
Make sure you’re motivated by something more than external goals, make sure those things are defined well, and stick to those definitions as they are what success truly looks like for you.
Measure your progress by metrics that directly influence the result, and don’t get caught up in society's perpetual chest-puffing match.
Remember to be open to learning, but always pick and choose what’s relevant to you. How your neighbor became successful is in no way related to how you’ll find your success.