What were you thinking?
No matter how evolutionarily superior one might feel, we, humans, are animals. As animals, we have primal instincts, things that we naturally do to ensure our survival. Much of our primal instincts boils down to good feelings and bad feelings. We want a lot of a good feeling, like happiness or belonging because it makes us feel comfortable, and thus more likely to survive. Contrarily, a bad feeling like anger or dismay will make us feel uncertain and less comfortable, so we want to steer away from it and back to happiness. To some extent, knowledge is a primitive desire. Knowledge helps us find out what things make us survive and what things don’t. To expand to a more internal sense, we seek to understand ourselves as the means of learning how to ensure future survival. However, evaluating ourselves is pretty hard to do purely objectively. Just as you may feel quite clueless if I showed you a photo of random bacteria and asked if it was large or small, humans have limited basis to analyze themselves on other than literal feelings and emotions. Smart or dumb, fast or slow, kind or rude, these are all relative to those around us. Thus, we fall back on comparisons, which can be a natural, yet strangely unhealthy practice. I’m sure you’ve been told at one point or another not to compare yourself to others, and I know it sounds cliche. But the thing is, many of us have been innocently comparing ourselves to others for long that our habitual minds have accepted it as normal. That’s bad.
There’s this kid in my school, let’s call them Sam. I’ve known Sam for a few years now and have always respected them for the person that they are. Sam is extremely smart, kind, friendly, hard-working, athletic and successful. The list goes on, but you get the idea. I think we all know a Sam. Everytime I see Sam they’re smiling, they’re always getting the answers right in class, and constantly exude a positive energy I envied. Why can’t I be like them? I’d ask myself. On the surface, Sam’s life seemed so perfect in every way. It even felt unfair that someone like that could exist, while I was stuck with my own lame existence. But honestly, I don’t think I could’ve been more wrong. Sam is very active on their spam instagram and I eventually realized that their life wasn’t as perfect as it seemed. The work ethic I admired turned out to be an overwhelming standard of life, and the intelligent appearance I observed turned out to be the result of lots of studying and deliberation. While Sam’s life may be great, I realized it wasn’t much better than mine. Whether or not someone’s flaws are outwardly visible doesn’t matter, because I wholeheartedly guarantee that truly applies to any one of your peers that you see in a similar light. Nobody has perfect mental health, a perfectly routined schedule filled with positive habits, the perfect friend group, flawless family situations, a 1600 SAT, a 4 gazillion GPA and a perfect personality. It’s just not possible. Whatever ideal person you think you see is a fantasy. Holding yourself to impossibly high standards of just the good qualities you see in someone else is dangerously likely to leave you disappointed in the end. Sean Covey put it best in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens, “Life is like a great obstacle course. Each person has their own course, separated from every other course by tall walls. Your course comes complete with customized obstacles designed specifically for your personal growth. So what good does it do to climb the wall to see how well your neighbor is doing or to check out his obstacles in comparison to your own?” Other people have different lives than you, and thus different aspirations and goals. Peeking over at others to see how far along you are, regardless of if they might be ahead or behind, is only slowing you down from your own path. The honest truth is that there will always be someone that seems further along than you and always someone behind you. Whatever relative perception you have of yourself among others is only limited to who you choose to look at and what you see in them.
Standards of Success
One misconception regarding a benefit of comparisons is that it helps you set goals and high standards. While any effort at personal development is certainly a good thing, letting others define your success is unfair to you. For some, success means getting the best grades and going to college. For others it means being a good son, daughter, or child. It could also mean being happy as often as possible and pursuing pleasure at all costs. Or perhaps just living and sustaining a peaceful and honest life. It totally varies by person, and among these few examples that I’ve listed, there is no one better form of success. Besides, who are you and I to judge others for what makes them happy? The better question to ask, though, is if everyone has a different definition of success than you, perhaps just slightly or drastically, then how is it fair on yourself to compare yourself to someone else’s standards? The way I think of it is if I’m at a restaurant, I’ll order what I like, not what the person in front of me got.
So instead of considering the values of others or the society around you, it’s important to do some genuine self reflection and find out what matters most to you. What do you value?
I’ve found that when pursuing success according to someone else’s standards, it’s actually really dang hard to be successful. I know especially in the NOVA area where I live, many students are under a ton of pressure to succeed academically and get into a good college. But what if you don’t really care about college? Firstly, it’s just going to be even harder to get in. Secondly, there are certainly other paths to lead a good life after graduation, and it all depends on what a person wants. If one person wants money, then sure, go to college and get a nice fancy degree! But if someone would rather make less but have a job that’s really meaningful to them, they should be able to pursue that freely. Unfortunately in our society, there’s a lot of judgement on others when they don’t match up with what seems to be the “righteous” scale of success. Nobody should feel like they are worth less just because they don’t reach a high standard of success on someone else’s scale. I’m not saying drop out of high school or anything, but just take a moment to think about things. What is it that you want to get out of life?
This is especially relevant to any of my fellow seniors applying to college. I don’t care if you get into Harvard or not, the college you go to isn’t a definite indicator of your value. You are. So don’t worry about where others may be going, just focus on your own obstacle course.
What to do instead
So, you’ve got your own set of values and all that jazz. What now? Once you’ve stopped worrying about others and where you seem to stand compared to them, you get to start comparing yourself… to yourself! The saying goes, “Be better than who you were yesterday,” or something like that. But to be honest, I don’t really vibe with that logic. In the obstacle course, I’m not going to turn around and look where I used to be. Instead, I’m looking at where I need to go. So why not compare yourself to the person you want to be tomorrow? Your personal progress and growth is an extremely valuable asset, and is more realistic to compare yourself to. Goal setting is a really great way to go about this, so expect an article on that sometime soon.
I hope you’re all doing well as you read this. This is just part of my perspective at the present moment, feel free to agree or disagree with any of it. In fact, leave your thoughts in the comments below, I’d love to hear them! Take care everyone!