Jacquelyn Smith

The Comparison Trap

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“Why am I not as successful as [insert name here]?”


I think pretty much everyone has asked themselves this question at one time or another. You bust your butt trying to get ahead, but somehow, it doesn’t get you as far as you want to go. Then this little voice inside starts complaining about the unfairness of it all. Hard work should pay off, right?


Problem is, success doesn’t always show up when you want it to. It can really take its sweet-ass time. This is usually when we slip into one of the two comparison trap types:


Type One: The Ego Booster


“But I’m so much better than so-and-so, and they’re successful!”


Unfortunately, success doesn’t always mean being the best at something. In fact, you don’t even have to be that great. Skill only seems to be one part of the success formula. I can think of several books whose authors have become household names, but their writing is awful.


Instead of using their awfulness to boost our egos and make ourselves feel better, we need to look past their lack of skill to what has made them successful. What else do these people have going for them?


Usually if skill is the missing ingredient, a successful person makes up for it with persistence, the right contacts, or even luck. In fact, it seems like people who aren’t that talented often have more persistence than those who are. They don’t allow themselves to get discouraged by setbacks or rejection; they just keep plowing forward.


You may never have the same kind of contacts, and luck is arbitrary, but at least you can learn to be more persistent. If you’re talented and persistent, chances are you’ll have a winning combination.


Type Two: Self-Flagellation


“But I do everything so-and-so does, and they’re way more successful than me!”


Studying successful people in your field and emulating them is smart. Why waste time reinventing the wheel when someone else already has it figured out? But what works for one person, doesn’t always work for everyone else. There isn’t a magic formula.


This can really drive you nuts if you let it. You feel like you’re doing all the right things, but you’re not seeing the same results. Again, persistence, contacts, and luck come into play, but often the person you’re using as a role model is also more talented or experienced than you. (That’s why they’re your role model, right?)


This kind of comparison can be depressing. As much as you think you’re following in someone else’s footsteps to success, no two situations are ever identical. What ends up working for you could be something totally different. It’s like a combination lock. You have a few of the numbers right, but the lock still won’t open.


Instead of beating yourself up, you need to work to close that gap in skill, and keep changing your approach until you break through. Maybe you can do something to make one of your role model’s tactics your own, or maybe you can come up with something completely different. Either way, you need to keep an open mind, and keep pushing yourself.


The Bottom Line


Comparing yourself to others can be dangerous. While it’s good to strive to improve, the comparison trap often leads down an unproductive road of frustration. I struggle with the two trap types on a regular basis. In the end, I think we need to remember our past achievements, identify what we can improve, and come up with our own definition of success that is independent of other people. (Which is easier said than done.)


Do YOU fall into the comparison trap? How do you work through it?   


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3 thoughts on “The Comparison Trap

  1. aniko

    I have fallen into the Comparison Trap. What a counterproductive waste of energy it is, too! Not only that, but it *feels* bad to be petty towards people whose only ‘fault’ is success. I found that switching to writing GoodReads reviews channeled time and effort I would have spent on self-flagellating comparisons into something much more positive. Of the two (comparing v. review writing), I know it wasn’t the comparisons that helped me become a better writer.


    1. Jacquelyn

      I love this idea! What a great way to shift gears and get into a more positive mindset. Thanks for sharing. :)

      1. aniko

        I’m woefully behind on my reviews at the moment. I think I have two I haven’t uploaded to Goodreads and another two or three I need to write. Hmmm…

        But, yes, I agree that it is more positive to critique and learn than to compare and wallow. Although there are some days where wallowing just feels so much easier! 😉 The discipline of writing reviews is good way to put things in perspective, and help you appreciate what you do really well.


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