Today has been a relatively long day in what has been a long week. I had pretty well decided that I was going to let Siri pick a random number between 1 and 27 so that I could pick from my treasure trove of previous years’ posts. I knew I wouldn’t have the energy to write an original piece this evening. Sometime random really isn’t random, however, as it turns out that the number of the blog post Siri selected ended up pointing to a piece that I myself needed to read. So I am grateful for the “randomness” of the universe in picking this particular post, because it is exactly what I needed to be reminded of today. So please enjoy this post from the original “Forty Days” blog, written in February of 2015.
Forty Days, Day 5–Shall I Compare Thee…?
Anyone who’s ever tried to do anything every day knows what a challenge it is to establish a habit and maintain the routine. When you’re trying to write or create artwork or compose music or do anything creative every day the challenge multiplies, perhaps exponentially. When you try to offer that work of creativity publicly every day it feels astronomically challenging. It doesn’t need to be of course, unless you’re a perfectionist, which I unfortunately happen to be. I’m working on it, but there it is. I wrote a daily blog on gratitude for three years. Some days were insightful, wise, and relatively well written. Others were–well–less than brilliant, perhaps to the point of not being very good. Nevertheless I faithfully published them each night for some 700-plus days in a row and 1,001 days overall.A friend of mine writes a haiku every day. I find myself envying him because while it can be challenging to write a really good haiku, it still is only three lines and 17 syllables long. And while I would not suggest that anyone can write a haiku a day, somehow implying that haiku writing is easy, it feels like it would be less time consuming than my daily blog over these 40 days, especially when I’m trying to be wise and insightful. An old acquaintance of mine challenged herself to paint a painting a day for 30 days. Now that would be challenging. Comparing my daily blog to her producing a painting each day is a bit like comparing haiku writing to writing my daily 500-plus words a day blog. The level of work and commitment and time to produce a painting–and most of them were portraits–feels incredibly awesome to me as someone who has very limited artistic ability.
But as I got to thinking about it I realized that a serious problem arises with when I start comparing myself, what I’m doing, and how I’m doing with another person. Many of us grew up being compared with or comparing ourselves to people around us. If you’re from a large family like I am, comparisons are inevitable–family members, friends, school teachers all begin comparing you with your siblings. You soon learn that in order to be noticed you have to distinguish yourself by doing something unique. Sometimes this means doing something “good” or acting out, becoming the class clown, getting the best grades, and so forth. The cycles of comparing and competing can run unchecked through most of our lives unless something happens to interrupt them. We can get to a place in our lives when we feel like we’re always being measured against other people and somehow come up short, we are lacking in some way.
For some of us it takes a dramatic shift of perspective to move away from the “I am not as good as this person” or “I need to keep bringing my A game to stay on top” or “I hope they don’t figure out that I don’t know what I’m doing,” or any of the 1,001 things we say to ourselves or others say to us that can leave us feeling completely demoralized. I suffered for many years watching and comparing myself with some of the people around me. I was baffled as to how people who were less capable and talented than I was were somehow doing better in their careers. I spent too much time looking around at what everyone else was doing and what was happening with them and too little time looking at myself.
Eventually I realized that what I needed to focus on was showing up, doing the best I could on any given day, and on helping the people I was there to help. I let go of the need to be perfect and the idea that everything had to be excellent. There were times when pretty good had to be good enough. I learned that I wouldn’t always be able to “get it right,” but that I could always do my best. I had to learn that sometimes my inability to please someone else–especially in a work context–was less about my work ethic, the quality of the end product, and my commitment and more about the other person. I learned a lot through painful trial and error, and while I wish I could lay things out in such a way that I could spare others some of my more challenging lessons, I’m not sure I can. Each of us must come to our own realizations that, at the end of the day, it really is much more about who we are and how we show up in the world (as in how we share our true selves in the world around us) and about doing the best we can than trying to be someone or something we are not.
One thing I want to be clear about: competition and comparing ourselves with others is not bad in and of itself. Some elements of competition are what helps us improve and sharpen our skills and abilities. When people are pit against one another in competition, where “winners” and “losers” are created and people are made to feel inferior, then competition and comparison becomes destructive.
In one blog post I am not going to convince anyone caught in this cycle that you need not continue to participate in the comparison Olympics, that you are not in competition with yourself or anyone else to prove who is more worthy, who is better, who deserves this or that. What I will do is invite you over these 40 days you spend some time in contemplation and compassionate conversation with yourself about who you are and what shifts you need to make to begin to see your that your inherent value lies in who you are at your core and how you bring your own unique gifts and talents into the world. It takes courage for each of us to do such examinations, but when all is said and done, the outcomes of such exploration and the subsequent changes we make in our lives are well worth the effort. And so it goes.