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Work / Life Balance

The Comparison Trap: How to Enjoy (and Not Envy) the Success of Others

It's easy to see the success of others as a reminder of your own shortcomings. But your jealousy is really a window into seeing what qualities should improve upon.


First thing in the morning, I check Twitter, only to have it list off for me all the ways I’ve already fallen behind. A colleague has released a new e-book. Two of my design heroes are announcing a collaborative project. One of my old college buddies has posted a video trailer for an upcoming online program, and she looks phenomenal, polished, charismatic (I’m still in bed, bleary-eyed, and definitely not at my most telegenic.) 

Am I really falling behind? Is anybody actually keeping score? Did any of these people post any of the updates with the intent of making me feel bad? Of course not. But if I’m not careful, it’s terribly easy to view my social media streams as a constant reminder of all the stuff I’m not doing, dreams I’m not fulfilling, and rooms I’ve failed to decorate in a Pinterest-worthy manner.

This isn’t a social media problem. It’s a comparison problem. There isn’t a single thing about Twitter – or any of the other social media platforms I use – that’s designed to make me ask how I’m measuring up. That’s all me – an automatic, internal mechanism. It’s part ego (“But what does this say about me?”), part creative drive (“What more am I capable of?”), and part deep soul yearning (“How can I make an impact, leave a legacy, and matter?”). 

And I know it’s not just me. I’ve spent the past year collaborating with leadership coach Tanya Geisler on researching how comparison works, what it costs us, and what it can teach us – and we’ve discovered that it runs rampant among just about every creative, growth-oriented person we know. In our comparison-soaked culture, it’s hard to avoid looking around at what other people are doing with their short time on earth, and slipping (often unconsciously) into “How am I stacking up?” mode. Here’s what we learned: 

Don’t compare your insides to someone else’s outsides. 

The first time I heard this excellent, if hard-to-implement, advice, I was suffering from a terrible case of envy. Some competitor or other had achieved an inspiring degree of success and I was complaining to a mentor about how unachievable it seemed to me. Her warning took me aback: Look, she told me, You have no idea what it took for them to get there. Don’t act like this was unearned, effortless, or pure dumb luck. And for Pete’s sake, don’t go thinking that because you read the press release, you have a single clue about what’s really going on behind the scenes.

You have no idea what it took for them to get there. Don’t act like this was unearned, effortless, or pure dumb luck.

She was absolutely right. I knew better, yet in the moment that I’d heard the news, I fell prey to reactive thinking and over-simplification. Because it’s much easier to look at someone “up there” and envy what they’ve got than it is to ask the tougher questions:

  • What do they have that I wish I had?
  • What do I admire about them? What are they modelling for me?
  • What have they done to get where they are today?
  • How does this relate to my own values?

When we reflect on these questions, we shift immediately out of comparison mode (that whole comparing-our-insides-to-their-outsides) and turn inwards, to face the heart of the matter: our own desires and fears.

Transform comparison into celebration

Admiration and envy are responses that point us toward what we value most. And when we become aware of what we value, we are much better positioned to create a life that’s richly satisfying.  

Admiration and envy are responses that point us toward what we value most.

If you notice yourself admiring people who take creative risks, bring your full attention to the part of you that wants to dare more greatly. If you catch yourself envying the folks in your circles who are at ease with self-promotion, take some time to reflect on how you might share your triumphs in a way that feels totally YOU. Heck, if you’re obsessing over tennis players’ forearms, it could be a sign that you’re ready to revamp your fitness regime. You get the idea.

Use the Success of Others As a Mirror

Comparison can be a dark, stuck place, but only if you let it be. There’s gold to be found in your comparison habit, if you’re willing to look for it.  The light we see in others can help us see our own – and appreciate it.

So the next time you catch yourself admiring or envying someone’s success, gifts, or particular brand of radiance – be it in a professional context, a personal one, or simply perusing magazine covers – take a moment to consider:

  • What qualities in them inspire me?
  • Where do I currently embody these qualities?
  • How might my expression of these qualities differ from theirs?
  • What can I learn from my desire to embody these qualities more fully?

Your Twitter feed may never look quite the same.

For more on breaking free of the comparison loop to focus on what matters most to you, visit Beyond Compare, the digital program Lauren co-created with Tanya Geisler.

Comments (2)
  • http://www.scoop.it/t/web-2-0-education/p/4029310834/2014/10/06/the-comparison-trap-how-to-enjoy-and-not-envy-the-success-of-others The Comparison Trap: How to Enjoy (and Not Envy...

    […] First thing in the morning, I check Twitter, only to have it list off for me all the ways I’ve already fallen behind. A colleague has released a new e-book. Two of my design heroes are announcing a collaborative project.  […]

  • Jonny

    Thanks for the article. I needed it.

  • tseib

    Good article. Emerson wrote that “Envy is ignorance, imitation is suicide.” The first part reminds us of how little we know about the “insides” of others’ lives. I take no joy in the suffering of others, but it is always a sobering reminder of our limited viewpoint when someone we thought “had it all” ends up publicly fallen, broken, or humiliated in some way. The “imitation as suicide” part reminds me that trying to be like someone else is to negate our own unique gifts and ideals, and lose the essence of who we were born to be–even if we don’t always like it.

  • http://tffconsulting.com/2014/10/06/the-comparison-trap-how-to-enjoy-and-not-envy-the-success-of-others-99u/ The Comparison Trap: How to Enjoy (and Not Envy) the Success of Others – 99U | TFF Consulting

    […] via The Comparison Trap: How to Enjoy (and Not Envy) the Success of Others – 99U. […]

  • http://www.scoop.it/t/what-i-wish-i-had-known/p/4029321768/2014/10/06/the-comparison-trap-how-to-enjoy-and-not-envy-the-success-of-others The Comparison Trap: How to Enjoy (and Not Envy...

    […] Am I really falling behind? Is anybody actually keeping score? Did any of these people post any of the updates with the intent of making me feel bad?  […]

  • http://www.forensichealth.com/2014/10/06/since-last-we-spoke-10-6-14/ Since Last We Spoke 10-6-14 : Forensic Healthcare Online

    […] comparison problem (so […]

  • http://yourauthenticweb.com/services/web-design/ Ashley Pajak

    I really do think that certain personalities are just worse about picking themselves apart. This seems to be a big problem in the artistic communities. Constantly feeling behind though can be a great motivator if you take as such.

  • http://www.laurenbacon.com/how-to-stop-keeping-score-and-start-celebrating-your-wins/ How to Stop Keeping Score and Start Celebrating Your Wins | Lauren Bacon's Curiosity Labs

    […] My latest piece for 99u is about how to get back into the three-dimensional world, so you can stop feeling less-than (or greater-than) other people, and step back into appreciation, connection and compassion. […]

  • http://www.scoop.it/t/switzerland/p/4029392467/2014/10/07/the-comparison-trap-how-to-enjoy-and-not-envy-the-success-of-others The Comparison Trap: How to Enjoy (and Not Envy...

    […] It's easy to see the success of others as a reminder of your own shortcomings. But your jealousy is really a window into seeing what qualities should improve upon.  […]

  • http://www.fastjobz.com/2014/10/success-how-to-achieve-it/ Success - How to Achieve it | Create Resumes | Find Jobs | FastJobz.Com

    […] success in terms of the amount of money they already have. But how ever you may want to define success, the fact remains that success is getting what you really want in […]

  • http://risenetworks.org/2014/10/09/the-comparison-trap-how-to-enjoy-and-not-envy-the-success-of-others/ The Comparison Trap: How to Enjoy (and Not Envy) the Success of Others

    […] To Read More, Click HERE […]

  • http://lnkd.in/Mj5b3D Mariam

    I used to have this problem tell I once met one of my very inspirational heroes online. And I realised he was just a normal person with less intelligence than I thought yet he knew what to write and when to write it. Everyone is good enough but not everyone is good at showing how good he is.

  • http://jennifer365.com/blog/links-worth-clicking-pitfalls-positive-thinking-motivation-killers Links worth clicking: From the pitfalls of positive thinking to motivation killers | A better life, by design | jennifer365

    […] You have no idea what it took for them to get there. […]

  • Hany Ibrahim

    Thanks for this interesting article. It inspired me to write something similar in Arabic for my Arab fellows. I believe that comparison is something widely spread in the Arab culture and it consumes energy and thought

  • http://www.twitter.com/sazisophiri S A Z I S O

    “Don’t compare your insides to someone else’s outsides.”

    ^^^That quote says it all! Also, the more week look to others, the less we focus on ourselves and the more behind we end up. Loved this post, will be sharing it with my peers. Thanks.

    • Mike Sparks

      that IS a great quote…

  • http://yourauthenticweb.com/ Louis Novick

    Constantly comparing yourself to others can become toxic very quickly. You begin to ask yourself questions that lack any relevance or semblance to yourself.

  • http://theinformationage.co/2014/10/13/the-comparison-trap-how-to-enjoy-and-not-envy-the-success-of-others/ The Comparison Trap: How to Enjoy (and Not Envy) the Success of Others | The Information Age

    […] provided by 99u […]

  • http://fa102adl.wordpress.com/2014/10/14/how-am-i-stacking-up/ How am I stacking up? | FA102a_DL Fall 2014

    […] an increasingly competitive world, especially for motivated creatives, it’s impossible not to compare yourself to others. Envy can rear its ugly head at any point and self-doubt in your own accomplishments can sink in […]

  • http://amandabnewmedia.wordpress.com/2014/10/15/how-am-i-stacking-up/ How am I stacking up? | New Media Design

    […] an increasingly competitive world, especially for motivated creatives, it’s impossible not to compare yourself to others. Envy can rear its ugly head at any point and self-doubt in your own accomplishments can sink in […]

  • http://www.wiltgren.com/2014/10/22/comparison-trap-dont-compare-creative-insides-someone-elses-outsides/ The comparison trap: Don't compare your creative insides with someone else's outsides « Wiltgren Media

    […] Linky: The Comparison Trap: How to Enjoy (and Not Envy) the Success of Others […]

  • http://www.steamfeed.com/5-ways-blogging-sways-customers-business/ 5 Ways Blogging Sways Customers To Do Business With You

    […] we all acknowledge that other people may have similar issues as ours, through our inevitable comparison we usually conclude that our problems are worse or more […]

  • boucains

    Ms. Bacon, I like the fact that you didn’t stop at “don’t compare”. Comparing ourselves is great motivation to push ourselves to be better than we are today. The key, as you stated so well, is to do it without envy.

    I will never, ever, be as good an editor as Esther Schindler. I will never, ever, be as good at programming as her husband Bill. Yet, I stopped putting two spaces after my periods because of Esther’s passion on the subject, and I’m not afraid of code because of Bill’s incredible competency. I know if he can do what he does, I can at least get my feet wet.

    These are tiny things, but across the range of people I meet, these little changes add up.

  • http://negociosalmaximo.com/ Richard Santos

    Great article! in our culture, we’re trained to judge by the way things look. Sometimes, someone might look like they’re successful or doing well, but you never know what’s going behind the scenes. It’s like judging a book by its cover. I would just focus on myself, my own goals and like the author of this article mentioned: see what you can learn from their “success”….

  • Leoni

    I used to be insanely jealous of other people until, one day, I spontaniously had an epiphany. I suddenly realised that there is no one on earth that I’d rather be than myself. There’s nobody else’s story that I could follow completely other than my own and there’s nobody elses troubles that I would have a clue to start to deal with effectively other than my own. After all, it’s my unique set of challenges that makes me me.

    Although I still struggle with envy in day-to-day life, that insight has always been there to guide me ever since.

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  • Nolo Guajardo

    What an article, I envy the writer.
    Just kidding, this is how I feel sometimes and it is great to know there’s a cure.
    I truly thank you for writing it.

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