In a world where we can access the personal lives of almost any human being, from celebrities, to coworkers, to that one guy from high school who seems to be living the life you always wanted, what do we compare to? When it feels as though we are living at the low end of the totem pole, and everyone around us seems to be climbing to the top, what do we turn to?
In the fall of 2016, I was fortunate enough to be able to speak at the Americorps NCCC Closing Ceremony. I used this opportunity to express the importance of identifying a self, and trusting that self. It was then when I shared the multitude of times that I did not do this. The times where I allowed myself to crumble, to break under the outside pressure. As I stated in my speech, “I was struggling feeling like a failure when I looked around and saw success in the faces of all of you, I was struggling questioning my life and my goals when Facebook would pop up with all of the great things that my peers were achieving from home.”
It is here, at that line, where I looked out into the crowd into the eyes staring back at me, that I realized I was not alone. We live in a time where everything from the birth of a first child, to a promotion can be plastered on screens across the world thanks to the many social platforms we plug in to. Now, while there are some fantastic things that others are truly doing, unfortunately most of these outstanding successes often times are not what they seem. How many of your peers from [insert small town high school name here] are off achieving such life changing things as their feeds success? How many do you think are as truly happy with their lives as their tweets say? If they’re truly happy, if they truly are achieving such great things, and if their lives are truly so fantastic, then there would be no need to post it on the internet.
The people that we interact with are not always who they appear to be, or who they “post” to be. This is misleading in many ways, but when we find ourselves struggling with our own lives, when we find ourselves looking around at others as a gauge of success, we find that we are comparing ourselves (usually a lower version of ourselves, because we compare when we feel as though we are lacking) to this perfect image that someone has created. It is a terrible, vicious cycle where there is no way to ever come out happy (which, is always the end goal of comparisons, to be happy with who we are).
When we begin to feel this way, we let self-pity soak into our bones. Self-pity, we must avoid it at all costs. As the author John Maxwell states in his book The 14 Laws of Growth, “Self-pity is an incapacity, a crippling emotional disease that severely distorts our perception of reality…It would reduce the universe to a personal wound that is displayed as proof of significance.”
Despite the obvious notion that comparing yourself to impossible standards is harmful to your self-image, self-esteem, and every other part of yourself, the real tragedy in this is that comparing our lives to other lives allows them to define what success is to us. In Western society, we seem to place huge importance on extrinsic goals, such as wealth, fame, and looks, and less importance on intrinsic goals, such as family, purpose, and character. To see this, look on the cover of any magazine or tabloid to see the face of some celebrity, to see an article about how much money they have. When we see our old friend from our hometown post a photo of his “private jet” for his “flight to the Caribbean,” it is hard not to get slightly jealous, it is hard not to question your goals, and feel as though you need to focus more on these extrinsic goals that society flaunts in our face.
So, how do we voluntarily tap out of this vicious cycle? What do we compare to? To answer this, we must first seek advice from other people who have found themselves in the same conundrum. Seneca, in one of his classic essays, introduces the word euthymia, which is essentially all about knowing who are you, and having the courage to walk your own path. Reflecting on this in his book Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday shared this idea on how to quiet the voices inside comparing us to others:
“So why do you do what you do? That’s the question you need to answer. Stare at it until you can. Only then will you understand what matters and what doesn’t. Only then can you say no, can you opt out of stupid races that don’t matter, or even exist. Only then is it easy to ignore ‘successful’ people, because most of the time they aren’t- at least relative to you, and often even to themselves. Only then can you develop that quiet confidence at Seneca talked about.”
This echoes the wisdom in Conversations with Myself, where Nelson Mandela stated:
“In judging our progress as individuals we tend to concentrate on external factors such as one’s social position, influence, and popularity, wealth and standard of education. These are, of course, important in measuring one’s success in material matters and it’s perfectly understandable if many people exert themselves mainly to achieve all of these. But internal factors made be even more crucial in assessing one’s development as a human being. Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others- qualities which are within easy reach of every soul- are the foundation of one’s spiritual life.”
The question we must answer in order to exit this vicious cycle is: What is important to us? What path are we on, and how can we develop the skills that Nelson Mandela states are crucial to being in human beings? When we develop these answers, then we can free ourselves of society’s overarching view of success. Our main goal, of becoming the best that we can be, of raising a happy family, or being a good worker, is what allows us to align our rulers in comparison to others. The Stoics tell us that we must have a guide, like a ruler, so that we can make sure our lines are straight. Identify your goals, intrinsically, based off of your values, your morals, and your idea of success. Once you do that, find someone who lives to that standard, and use them as a ruler to measure yourself. This is who you can compare to.
Lastly, John Maxwell relays this idea of character over success once again:
“If we desire to grow and reach our potential, we must pay more attention to our character than our success. We must understand that personal growth means more than expanding our minds and adding to our skills. It means increase your capacity as human beings. It means, maintaining core integrity, even when it hurts. It means being who we should be, not just who we want to be. It means maturing our souls.”
So what path are we on? Because I can tell you, that your path is not the same as your father’s, your friends, or that person on Instagram who has 1.5 million followers. But, we realize that their goals don’t matter in relation to ours, so there is no identity crisis, or feeling of inadequacy when we see their achievements, real or not, because we have developed the idea of what is important to us. If happiness, or internal peace is our goal (which it always is), this is how we find it. We find it by quieting those voices inside that scream out, questioning your life, by hunkering down on your values, and your definition of success, and by working towards it.