Illustrations by Kelsey Wroten for this article.
Comparing your work or abilities to someone else's can be an unproductive and self-destructive activity. Yet we compare ourselves all the time.
In my own experience, it feels like every day I'm comparing my work against those I admire. Even now, a decade into my career, I can always find someone doing something I wish I could do even half as well.
These types of comparisons can often leave you feeling unmotivated or discouraged, afraid of a seemingly waning future, completely deprived of a way forward. When I compare myself I end up feeling like I'd rather watch TV or play video games than do anything else, because why bother? I could never do what those I admire have been able to.
Fortunately there's a better way to compare yourself against others. One that is much more productive and healthy.
It comes down to five things: the face of something is not the whole thing, you have to be honest with yourself and your motivations, the way forward is by becoming insatiably curious about the work, always do your own thing, and growth takes effort.
Remember the face of something is never the whole thing
The most challenging part of any endeavor often takes place behind the scenes, invisible to anyone who didn't put in the work.
When you come across something you naturally want to compare yourself to—something that causes you to question your own work or abilities—it's good to remind yourself that a lot of work goes on behind the scenes.
There's a fairly famous parable on this notion:
The celebrated Spanish painter Pablo Picasso was sketching in a park one evening when a woman passing by instantly recognized him. She begged Picasso to paint her portrait and he agreed. After just a few minutes, he hands the woman a sketch that beautifully captures her image. The woman is glowing with joy from the artwork.
When asked how much she owes him for the work, Picasso replies by saying the painting will cost something like $5,000 (give or take). The woman is outraged. She's fuming. She asks Picasso how a drawing which only took fiveminutes to create cost so much?
It took me my whole life to be able to create that work in five minutes.
Be honest with your motivations
When you don't know what your motivations are or what you're trying to accomplish at any point in your career, you're easier discouraged or hindered by comparisons than not.
Another way to think of it is: if you're not running towards something in particular, it's easier to just not run at all, or to burn out running in the wrong direction. You have to give yourself clear motivations in order to keep moving toward progress. To do that, you have to first know where you are and where you want to be.
When I compare myself against someone I really admire, I use the gap between where I am and where they are as a method of directing my next action; not fearing that I might not be able to do the same caliber of work. What skills might have helped get them there that I am lacking? Is there a specific type of work I should be pursuing? Are there details in the work I can focus on learning to do well myself?
Here's wisdom from the Dalai Lama on motivation vs. anxiety:
Having proper motivation and honesty are the keys to overcoming fear or anxiety. Fearless and honest self-appraisal can be a powerful weapon against self-doubt or low self-confidence.
Identifying a gap—in experience, knowledge, or ability—is important, but only as much as it is a gap between where you are and where you want to be. Everything else is just noise.
If you're not certain of where you want to be, it's easier to get discouraged by anything you come across. But when your motivations are clear, the things that discourage you are really just signposts on where you need to go next.
Be insatiably curious about the work
Once you've identified a clear gap between where you are (or what you're capable of) and where you want to be, you have to get really—insatiably, ridiculously—curious about what's actually inside that gap.
When you compare yourself to others, you likely fail to look deeper than the surface of the things you're comparing against. But, as you might recall, the surface of the thing is rarely ever the whole thing. You have to dig into the gap to really identify what's between you or your work and them and theirs.
To figure out what's in the gap is as easy as spending a bit of time deeply looking at it, asking questions, talking about it with others, then experimenting and tinkering.
In the book Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, author Ashlee Vance explains how Elon Musk uses his overwhelming curiosity to suck knowledge and insights from experts in fields he has little to no knowledge or experience in.
‘I thought at first that he was challenging me to see if I knew my stuff,' said Kevin Brogan, one of the early engineers at Space X tells Ashlee. ‘Then I realized he was trying to learn things. He would quiz you until he learned ninety percent of what you know.'
By actively pursuing his desire to better understand things he might have little-to-no information into, Elon has been able to go from launching an online payments platform to becoming a leading voice on electric vehicles, space exploration, and rocket science.
You can use curiosity and the power of questions to help fill the gap. Be pro-active, reach out to those you admire or are inspired by, ask them how they did what they did or any lessons they learned along the way. Dive into the work and focus on the details of it. Really get to know the work and why it feels different than your own. But remember…
Always do your own thing
Your goal should never be to become someone else. Your goal should always to become you, the unique version of yourself that produces work only you can. There will always be subtleties in your work that reflect your experience, passion, and perspective; embrace those nuances.
Of course the gap between you and your work and those who inspire you is fill-able, but only in ways you can fill it. At the end of that gap isn't another version of the person or work you are inspired by, it's a version of your own work/perspectives/abilities at the same level.
Here's author/artist Austin Kleon's advice on how to go about doing your own thing:
“Next time you come across someone's work and you're not sure exactly how they do it…Look closer. Listen harder. Then use your imagination and experiment with the tools you have. Your bad approximation will lead to something of your own.”
Remember that growing takes effort
I feel like writer Jocelyn K. Glei put this point best: “If everything was easy, nothing would have significance.”
There's no way around it: the best way to grow and fill the gap is to put in the work. Whenever you find yourself afraid that you just don't have what it takes to do good work, remember that all it takes is work.
Beating yourself up or feeling unmotivated isn't going to help you get better. Putting in the work is the way to get better, nothing improves if you don't do something about it. So when you identify a gap and start digging into it, remember that what comes next is the part many people want to imagine doesn't exist: the diligent practice, the exploration, the tinkering, the sweat (and sometimes tears).
As Virgin Records/Airlines/Galactic founder Richard Branson puts it:
Hard-won things are more valuable than those that come too easily.
None of this is easy, but that's exactly what makes it so valuable.
When you remember any of the above, comparing yourself to those you admire most becomes an exercise in growth and opportunity, not anxiety or failure.