In my last curiosity experiment, I cited Howard Thurman’s wonderful advice: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
His is a powerful reminder that fulfilling our purpose depends on us connecting to our own hearts – and it is also an exhortation to release our attachment to how our lives might look from the outside, and to how other people might “come alive” or be of service. Thurman suggests these things don’t matter much.
And he’s not alone, of course. One aphorism after another – from Dr. Seuss (“Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind”) to Theodore Roosevelt (“Comparison is the thief of joy”) – counsels us to let go of what other people think.
I do the same, on the regular – with my clients and friends, in the content of my recent course on defining success.
And yet I know I’m not alone in struggling to follow all of this excellent advice.
For many of us, letting go of these external definitions of success, the judgments of others, the attachment to looking a certain way (successful, creating impact, even being of service) is no simple task. Certainly, I personally haven’t found it easy. I’ve found myself challenged many times – and continue to do so – in every area of my life: in my career, of course, but also with everything from parenting to physical fitness. I pay far more attention than I’d like to what others might think of my choices – and to how I’m stacking up.
The culprit, as I see it, is a deeply-ingrained habit of comparison. We compare up – looking to others as role models and inspiration – and quietly judge ourselves less favourably. We compare down – disdaining others’ priorities and choices – for the fleeting high of boosting our own egos and feeling “better than” or “better off than” them. And when we consider potential paths of action, we imagine how our choices will be received, weighing the costs of being placed on a pedestal or becoming a target for criticism. Being the object of comparison – or even anticipating what that might mean for us – can hold us back as much as our own internal comparison habits.
Now, given that I’ve heard all the good advice to just stop comparing, stop asking what the world needs, and stop minding those who don’t matter, you might think I’d be well on my way to overcoming the habit. But simply knowing I need to stop doing it hasn’t helped me shift my behaviour. It’s far too habitual to simply disappear on command.
So what are we to do about it? We live in a culture that promotes and perpetuates comparison: hero-worship, envy, and disdain flood the media we consume and fuel an enormous proportion of advertising and marketing. And at the same time that we’re bombarded with messages that suggest we ought to want to be different than we are –and different from those we disdain – we’re also fed mantras to quit comparing our insides to others’ outsides, and to “be ourselves – everyone else is taken.” The trouble with these encouragements is that they’re about as helpful as telling a nicotine addict to quit smoking; they point to a desirable outcome but offer no support whatsoever towards achieving it.
So instead of telling myself (and my friends and clients) to just quit, I’ve been working with my fellow coach Tanya Geisler on a set of tools to change the underlying behaviour – and we’ve discovered that our comparison habits can in fact be a source of illumination and inspiration.
Over the coming weeks, Tanya and I will be exploring comparison in greater depth (here and on her blog) and sharing some frameworks we’ve developed for understanding and transforming your relationship to comparison. (After working with it a long time, I’ve come to believe that “quitting” comparison should not be the goal; making it conscious and befriending it will loosen its grip, but it likely won’t go away completely, any more than one can ever claim eternal victory over the inner critic.)
These tools are part of Beyond Compare, a self-study program we’ve been developing over the past several months and that launches October 28. To learn more about Beyond Compare –and download a free workbook for understanding your relationship to comparison –head over to www.beyondcompare.ca.
I’m so, so excited about sharing these with you. They’re the culmination of months of work, a lot of vulnerable conversations, and a dose of pure inspiration. My dearest hope is that this work helps light the path from being stuck in comparison, to feeling the freedom to follow our inner truth and come more fully alive.