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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)
  • 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://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://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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • http://www.ingobutsch.com Ingo Butsch

    An article every creative – pursuing own projects – should read! Thank you!

  • Paolo Degasperi

    Thank you for this smart and helpful point of view. I really needed it and I know it will help me. Very appreciated

  • CitizenjaQ

    It might not be a social media problem, but social media certainly makes it easier to engage in comparison. I wrote a column about it … geez, more than four years ago, and have accomplished nothing of note since then.

    http://www.hippopress.com/read-article/social-media-anxiety

  • blackripleydog

    My personal outlook has always been to celebrate real achievement in others and not resent it. I observe and seek to garner some lesson from their efforts and apply them to my own circumstances. What was it that Jesus say about teaching a man to fish instead of giving him a fish?

  • donald

    I personally think it’s good to appreciate and applaud the strengths you see in others. We all have special gifts and talents that we’ve developed. Appreciate yourself and others for the uniqueness they and you bring to the world. There are things to be learned from others, but don’t be afraid to be yourself and develop in your own way.

  • Phil Curl

    I certainly agree we could all benefit from not comparing ourselves to others and therefore feeding the green monster within, but to suggest social media platforms are completely absolved from the problem is over-simplifying it. Sure, they’re not specifically designed to encourage envy, but they sure as heck revel in the fact that a vast amount (I’d hazard a guess at most) posts, tweets and pins invoke such a reaction (be it consciously or sub-consciously intended). It’s what drives social media. Social platforms provide the shop window for personal promotion; the garden fence for peeking over so you can keep up with the Jones’s. As long as we’re aware of this, we’re better equipped to not fall foul of our egos.

  • Great Gatz

    Thank You. Total appreciation for this article. The best way is to stay positive.

  • http://www.obsessedwithconformity.com Jim Mitchem

    Yeah, no. Ego is a terrible motivator.

  • http://asmith3.com/ Avery Smith

    Great perspective! I think success envy can happen to the best of us. I like the idea of turning that very self-defeating reaction into an empowering one. Now, off to twitter to test it out!

  • steve

    great article!

  • Mrur Farooqi

    I am so happy to read it. Wonderful article!

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