How can I stop comparing my life to others'?
July 6, 2012 12:38 PM   Subscribe

It seems like every day I will see someone accomplish something amazing. My first thought is not to be impressed or happy for them, but to try and find out their age. Then, if they are younger than I, I'm overcome with jealousy and regret.

If I see a recent grad who has a book deal, or a post-grad with many papers published, my mood sinks. Sometimes I catch myself resenting people in fields I have zero interest in.

I am still not quite certain that the career path I'm on is the most fulfilling. I realize that this feeling could be used constructively to fuel ambition. Instead, I dwell on hypothetical versions of myself that are more accomplished. I want to turn this around, but I could use your help coming up with the right way to think about this situation.
posted by Monochrome to Grab Bag (33 answers total) 67 users marked this as a favorite
build up a stockpile of stories in your head about people who accomplished great things late in life. Frank McCourt is a good example. The truth is that, despite the 10000-Hour Rule, it doesn't actually take that long tro do something amazing. Depending on the thing, a year, a month, or a day. It's never too late to start.

Some people do exactly one incredible thing in their life, would you rather do it at 60, or have done it at 20?
posted by 256 at 12:43 PM on July 6, 2012 [4 favorites]

Never Too Late To Be Great is about this.
posted by oliverburkeman at 12:47 PM on July 6, 2012

it might also help to redefine "success". Some people define success by doing something that looks impressive to others; other people define success by improving the world or the lives of others. How do you define success?

Personally I have found reading Buddhist philosophies helpful- it often talks about things like this, and how everyone is on a different path, has a different purpose to their life, and it therefore is detrimental to compare yourself to another person.
posted by bearette at 12:47 PM on July 6, 2012 [7 favorites]

Some of these accomplishments you find yourself jealous of are likely legitimate amazing feats of human strength, intelligence, etc. Some of them are the result of being at the right place at the right time, and others are ill-gotten.

For the first set, you have no window into the sacrifices those people have made to make those accomplishments - so you have no real way of valuing them. Sure, all things equal it'd be nice to make some landmark discovery, but all other things aren't equal.

For the second set, remind yourself that people who start fad Tumblrs and emerge with book deals are primarily lucky. They had a great idea at a time when the cultural fields were fertile and rode the wave to a book advance. Can't predict that.

For the third set, congratulate yourself on not being willing to lie, cheat, or steal to gain the illusion of accomplishment.
posted by downing street memo at 12:50 PM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

You have to compare yourself with your previous self. A few years ago I was severely depressed and it's amazing I went to work and back and stuff. I couldn't have started a company or something really taxing at the time. Now, it's something I can think about. A few years ago self would be jealous of me. Think of it like that.

PS I suffer from this comparing thing frequently too and it can destroy you, please don't let it.
posted by sweetkid at 12:52 PM on July 6, 2012 [4 favorites]

I know I do this too, and I don't know how old you are but the older you get, the more frustrating it gets! I'm 34, which means nearly all professional athletes, most of the hottest actresses and actors, loads of musicians, and various other sorts of highly-accomplished people are younger than me.

So, you know, it's a natural-enough way to feel. But you know (as I know) that the only way they got there was by doing the work (and being lucky). So if you want to motivate yourself, motivate yourself to do the work - the work that's in front of you now, and the work of figuring out what you want to do in the future.

256's idea about focusing on stories of people who accomplished things later in life is good but it's a double-edged sword - if you're reasonably confident you're going to have a) accomplishments or b) a better sense of perspective by the time you get to their age, you're fine, but there's the risk that once you get to X age, you'll realize you're *still* not measuring up!

Ultimately, bearette's got it - you've got to figure out how to stop comparing yourself to others. It's not easy, but it's worth it.
posted by mskyle at 12:53 PM on July 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

to quote the famous prayer:
"If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself."
posted by Flood at 1:04 PM on July 6, 2012 [11 favorites]

Run on the narcissistic assumption that they are not more talented than you, and focus on whether they may be going about things differently in ways you could similarly benefit from.
For example, I've noticed that I'm pretty responsible with my time, and so when presented by crazy invitation that I have no time for or little interest in, I'll decline. And yet, saying "Yes" more often, even though sometimes irresponsible, seems to open a world of unexpected opportunities cropping up through the most bizarre cracks.
Same with the cliche of doing things that scare you. Taking risks, (be prepared to absorb consequences) etc.

Usually, it's just a case of stumbling into the right place at the right time - dumb luck is a huge factor. But even so, you can greatly influence how many places you stumble through, and raise the odds considerably.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:05 PM on July 6, 2012

As somebody with a very utilitarian approach to life, I've had a similar problem. One thing that really inspires me when I start thinking along those terms is the MTV show "The Jersey Shore", because the success of those... people... really helps emphasize the complete and total disconnect between talent and success.

Some people may not see this moral as a good thing, but I find it's actually a very cheery thought. For example, right now, I'm working on a novel right now. It might be awesome or it might be an utter piece of crap... and ultimately it doesn't really matter, because in the end what determines the success or failure of most things isn't how well conceived they are but simply how well you market it. Don't you think that's inspiring, in a way? You don't have to be incredibly smart or brilliant to get what you want out of life: all you have to do is work hard towards what you want and do your research thoroughly when it comes to marketing your idea. And research is easy when you have the hive-mind backing you, so really all you need is to go out and do something random - and if you can convince enough people that it's awesome, it will be! :-)
posted by wolfdreams01 at 1:11 PM on July 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

I do this too, but am phasing out of it. For me, it comes from feeling like I got a raw deal compared to my peers in the game of life. I want what they have but I have no idea how to get there, and at the same time, I engage in self-defeating behaviours because deep down I don't feel I deserve similar, or even lesser, successes. Ergo, I get super-jealous and insecure when others are whizzing by me in life while I'm left on the sidelines feeling like I'm playing catch up.

The solution for me has been years of therapy to unravel the self-hatred, lack of self-esteem, etc that keeps me stuck. The counsellors I saw over the years helped me to see that I deserved more than I thought.

Also, simply being in this self-pitying frame of mind for so many years wore on me until I realized that I wanted more out of life and no one was going to swoop in to help me--I had to step up and put in the work and time to figure out what I wanted and then do what was necessary to get it (applying for different jobs, etc).

So basically, I think the comparing yourself to others comes from not feeling good about where you are, while being stuck about how to change things. You know what's great for that? Therapy :)
posted by oceanview at 1:18 PM on July 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

Human history is very long in comparison to our lifetimes, and not only will most of us never be famous, most of the famous won't be famous for long--maybe not even for their whole lifetimes.

So, here you are, you have X number of years in your life, and no matter what, your mark on this earth is most likely going to be fleeting.

So maybe not worry about that. Squeeze all you can out of living; do stuff because you want to do it, and avoid as many things you don't want to do as possible. Find those things that make you feel happy and connected and do as much of them as possible. Maybe you'll be famous, maybe not, what does it matter?

Not that I don't get jealous of young, beautiful clear-skinned children doing things I would love to do but never got the chance/had the talent/had the luck. But to let that take up more than a few moments of my life would be a waste, so I try not to. They are where they are, and I'm here.
posted by emjaybee at 1:31 PM on July 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh you could eat your heart out with this stuff. I'm 50 and once upon a time I was a wunderkund, now I'm just the old hag in that cube over there.

You have to make your peace with this. The earlier, the better.

I've always said, "If I wanted it bad enough, I'd have it." It's not like I beat my head in trying to get what they had, I was just amorphously jealous that they had their shit together and I didn't.

Once you feel better about where you are, and about what you are willing to do with your life, these feelings won't be so intense.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:35 PM on July 6, 2012 [13 favorites]

I agree with Ruthless Bunny.

I've also found that finding what you actually love doing in life, a true passion (if you have one, some, or even a couple) will usually negate nearly all of these feelings. Seriously. You enjoy doing that thing (or set of things) so much, you're already being rewarded.

I would take your jealousy and regret as a helpful sign you haven't yet found something you truly love to do.

Do you actually LIKE your career path? Do you enjoy doing its primary activity?

If it will make you a decent living and not cause you to claw your eyes out, that's good. Make money, and use that money to find out what you love to do. Exploration in and of itself can be quite an adventure.

If you start getting an ulcer every time you think about your career or job, that's bad. You need a job that won't drive you crazy and make you feel you're wasting your life, envying other people's successes.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 1:46 PM on July 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

I could use your help coming up with the right way to think about this situation.

OK well you could think of your current attitude as being a sign of immaturity if that helps. The reality is that it competing with people based on age and expected peer parity is something you do in school. When you leave academia, you are supposed to outgrow the world of Best in 10th Grade! awards and Senior Prizes disticntions and summa cum laude. It can take a couple of years to do this, the same way it can take a few years to see a "year" as January to December and not September to June, or to stop being surprised you don't get summers off from work. But you do eventually stop thinking the way.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:47 PM on July 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

The solution is to stop wasting your energy on being envious of others' accomplishments and look inward. What do you like to do? What are your passions? What is your field? If you enjoy volunteering and activism, get out there. If you enjoy art, make more art. If you're studying what most other people would call "dry" textbooks about the history of Tibet, maybe strive to become an expert in that knowledge and write some essays about it, peppered with your own political/economic/whatever opinions.

Whatever you end up doing, focus completely on it for at least a few hours every day. Don't pay attention to people who call your hobby a waste of time, or weird, or even "oh how interesting TELL ME ALL ABOUT IT." Sorry, folks. This is Monochrome's time to practice, study, and become that activity completely.

This is how those people became successful, no matter their age. They focused. They didn't see anything else but their subject, goal, or passion. Then someone recognized that dedication, or they drew attention to themselves, and ta-da!
posted by DisreputableDog at 1:54 PM on July 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

The more time you worry about other people and their accomplishments, the less time and energy you will have to devote to yourself.

I used to do this when my self-esteem suffered and I felt inferior. I always felt unaccomplished. I used to feel bad as a nurse working beside residents who were younger. I didn't feel smart. I would have bizarre comparisons. I was jealous of a certain TV chef who was near my age, had a big corporate job, and then left to live in France for a decade and now has all kinds of awards, books, and a TV show. I used to look up stats on Chrissie Wellington and other professional athletes and wonder why I wasn't running and cycling at the Iron Man. That was craziness. I am not a triathlete! It was as if I was looking for reasons to be unhappy. My accomplishments weren't good enough. I wasn't a world-class athlete. I wasn't a doctor or a French Chef. I was just this nurse living in suburbia in a cookie-cutter house with two kids and a husband. With therapy and a lot of practice of getting rid of negative thoughts, I no longer think this way. I am content. I don't feel inferior. I am happy to be me and can recognize my accomplishments and worth.

A wise woman once said: "We all have different blessings." I am not a religious person but I find comfort in this statement. Practice gratitude. Remind yourself of your accomplishments and good fortune. I no longer think of accomplishments defining me in any way. You know what's most important? Friends. Yes, friends. Family. Health. Fun. Doing stuff that brings you joy. Have fun with your friends and family -- focus on them. Nurture your relationships. Do that more often and I'll bet you'll worry less about what other people are doing.
posted by Fairchild at 1:57 PM on July 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think Tom Lehrer put it into perspective quite nicely: It is sobering to consider that when Mozart was my age he had already been dead for a year.

I've learned not to look up high school friends on Google, because the ones I find are always incredibly successful and important and neato. Did you know that the guy who played Wash on Firefly went to my high school? Two years behind me. I did acting in high school. Damnit, I could have been on Firefly. I could be doing an AMA on reddit right now about what it's like to work with Nathan Fillion and if Jewel Staite is as hot in person as she is on tv ("really awesome, he's a great guy" and "hotter", if you were wondering). The semi-stoner guy I knew in Junior High learned Mandarin and started a 200 person business and is now a senior VP dealing with international marketing or some damn thing. Oh, he also plays piano and sings really well. Jerk. There's another... okay, you get the point.

Remember that no matter how successful you are, there is always someone out there who has accomplished something more or different or did it backwards and in high heels. I'm sure Bill Gates doesn't spend much time thinking about Mark Zuckerberg, but if he did it would probably bug him, a little, that Zuckerberg is the world's youngest billionaire. Hilary Clinton is pretty accomplished, wouldn't you agree? However, she'll never be President (probably) and she's working for a guy who is. John Landy was the second guy to run a four minute mile. How do you think that feels? The world record holder in the long jump never won an Olympic gold.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 2:03 PM on July 6, 2012 [4 favorites]

"When Keats was your age, he was dead already," as my dad used to say. This is just a rabbit hole with nothing but self-flagellation at the bottom. Do your own thing and don't waste your time comparing yourself to strangers.

Okay, that's easier said than done, but the first step is to commit to doing it. The second step is to come up with a good way of reminding yourself to keep doing it. Maybe a collage of late bloomers like Helen Hooven Santmyer and Richard Adams and Frank McCourt and Wallace Stevens and the Delany Sisters? Or whoever the equivalents in your professional field(s) might be.

The thing is that comparatively young people having professional successes is unusual enough to be a "man bites dog" story. "Experienced mid-career professional attains long-worked-for success" doesn't make headlines.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:03 PM on July 6, 2012

I had a really depressing moment like this when I turned 20, and realized I would never be a teenage phenom in anything. Someone wiser than me pointed out that teenage phenoms (imagine an Olympic gymnast or a world-class tennis player - someone who trains constantly) had probably never: been to a high school dance; had a sleepover; attended their high school graduation; gone on an impromptu road trip; followed their favorite band on tour all summer; goofed around in someone's backyard pool; stayed up late watching lightning bugs and looking at stars and hashing out ideas with friends; gone to a college party and gotten drunk and then gone to White Castle at 2am, etc., etc. Yes, maybe they stood at the top of the podium, which is totally awesome, but at what cost?

Substitute your own list of fun and/or important things in your own life, and ask yourself if it would have been worth sacrificing them for whatever it is you're currently jealous of?
posted by SuperSquirrel at 2:06 PM on July 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

I have a sister who is almost eight years younger than me. From the very moment she was born, she was cuter and more adored by the world. As adults, she is beautiful, smarter than I, taller than I, better dressed, classier, you name it. I am always told that I am jealous of her. To the point where I go to therapy because I think there is something wrong with me because how is it that I am jealous and I don't even know it? Don't be like me. Enjoy who you are and what you are able to accomplish. Flood has a great quote and it should be printed out and put onto something you see daily. I am sure you do wonderful things that you should be proud of and that many people are proud of you for. Think about all of that. It is unrealistic to compare yourself to someone who may have made one accomplishment you have noticed where you may make many and dismiss!
posted by Yellow at 2:14 PM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think all ambitious people struggle with this. My guess is that it bugs Bill Gates a lot that Mark Zuckerberg is a younger billionaire.

There are two ways to solve this:
1) become less ambitious
2) fulfill your ambitions

I'm a big fan of the latter. I would suggest that you put yourself in a community of people who are doing amazing things. Write to your heroes. Apply to an incubator or a graduate program full of other ambitious people. Get moving. If you don't like average, find some support structures to help you become extraordinary.
posted by carolinaherrera at 2:16 PM on July 6, 2012

When I was young I used to be depressed that Arthur Rimbaud had written such extraordinary poetry when he was only a teenager.

Then I realized that, well, at least I haven't given up writing (as he did before he was 20) and haven't been shot by a lover.

That's flippant, maybe, but it really does help me to keep in mind that what we accomplish by 20, or 25, or 30, or 35, is not the sum of who we are as human beings, and except in a few fields like classical music, it's rare that a head start makes an enormous difference.
posted by Jeanne at 2:26 PM on July 6, 2012

I've struggled with this all my life, and probably always will. It's what comes of having been a child prodigy for a couple of years.

What helps me is:

1. Accepting that this is a hangup of mine, and that it's always going to get under my skin a little. Somehow, this helps.

2. Considering the role of pure luck and chaos in what all of us do. For example, I often say to myself: God, why didn't I try to go into writing for TV! or God, why didn't I become an animator! But then I realize why exactly those things came to be. It was not one decision that I made in my life -- the day I decided to become a Boring Person. It was the result of a thousand little good moves. For example, I went to a certain small college where I could pursue particular opportunities. They all made me happy, not only at the time but in their knock-on effects in my life today. I met wonderful people that have been part of my life ever since. None of these things or people had anything to do with the entertainment industry -- and so, here I am. This isn't my fault for being lazy or lacking imagination. It's that the world is massive, and full of roads to joy. Also of roads to horrible bottomless pits. But joy too. Remember that.
posted by Countess Elena at 2:54 PM on July 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm a one-note record on this, but: do you know what your values are? What you want your life to look like? if you looked around one day and thought, "Wow, I've really made it," what would you be doing?

I think if you do that stuff, even if it's like, "Start my application to graduate school so someday I can be FANCY THING," or "Join a climbing gym and take one lesson so someday I can climb SCARY CLIFF,"- and first you have to, you know, figure out which schools best fit your interests and look up times to take the GRE and find the best climbing gym in your city by reading Yelp, etc- you end feeling happier and less resentful of other people who are doing their own FANCY THING on SCARY CLIFFS. When I am moving towards my own big goals, I feel less like, "Damn, she got there before me, this sucks," and more like, "Okay, she did the tough work out of sight for a long time, am I doing my own tough work? I am? GREAT."
posted by Snarl Furillo at 2:55 PM on July 6, 2012 [6 favorites]

It's not like there's a closet full of gold trophies and that every time some one else succeeds, your chances of success/fame/recognition decrease.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:44 PM on July 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Binge on this jealous, self-hating behavior. Embrace it until it gets old and boring and not worth it any longer. Make one simple rule for yourself - no half-way measures. If you want to feel bad about someone younger than you accomplishing something, go for it with gusto until you've had enough and then stop. (Notice how long it takes for you to be ready to move on. If you really focus on your jealous feelings, you will find that you can't sustain that intensity very long.)

It's OK if the thought comes back. If this thought wanders into your head again, make a choice - do I want to dwell on this now and indulge in a good fit of jealousy and not. if not, put it out of your head. If it won't stay out of your head, then focus on it seriously until you feel finished.

Over time, more and more situations will just not seem worth the mental energy to get jealous about. On the other hand, there will always be a few that really trigger you. (You may, in time, be OK with the success of young ball players but not with the success of your younger cousin.) That's OK - feel bad for while about your cousin's greater success (really bad!!) until you are done with it.
posted by metahawk at 4:01 PM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Why don't you just look for older people who have done cool things? Then you can say, "Oh, I still have time!"
posted by 200burritos at 4:43 PM on July 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

I do the exact same thing. What I do is I look at how I'm more accomplished than many people my age. I also tell myself to stop trying for greatness. Few people accomplish great things by trying to do something great - you pursue something you love and you try to do the best you can.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 5:29 PM on July 6, 2012

Watch this. Everyday. Or if you're afraid of it losing its value, watch it a few times a week at different times.

It touches on this topic a few times in a succulent but powerful way. The juxtaposition of the words and the images really helped me through tough times, such as when I didn't think I was good enough because many of my classmates are in grad school/have great jobs, etc. Thank you Mary Schmich.
posted by daninnj at 8:52 PM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I used to have this issue. Then I got sort of old (relatively), and now I have learned to mostly just compare myself to myself, and get unhappy about failing on a more relative scale of comparison.

Some day you will get old, and you probably get over comparing yourself to others, but you will really feel bad if you are accomplishing less then you were in the past.

So I guess my advice is;
Do a little better at whatever it is you do next year then you did this year.
Stop doing a thing you don't enjoy doing, if that is an option.
and just keep evaluate yourself against your past self.

As long as you are beating that fucker, you win.

And not just on the sorts of visible metrics of success, but also on enjoyment. If you were doing great at something you hated last year, and now you are failing at something you love, this year is a win.
posted by St. Sorryass at 10:50 PM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Why don't you just look for older people who have done cool things? Then you can say, "Oh, I still have time!"

I guess this works for some people but it only makes me feel like I need to get cracking to beat all the old people prodigies, which is no better than the other situation. I do better with this attitude: I might never be someone who other people think are cool. And who gives a shit, really? It's my life, and I'll do what I want with it, and what other people think about it is their problem.

(It did take me a while to be able to say that and I still forget sometimes. But it's worth it if you can do it.)
posted by emjaybee at 9:49 AM on July 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Abstract version: The lived experience of life is unique for all individuals. You have happy times, you have sad times. "Successful" people have happy times, they also have sad times, yet we tend to focus on the good things that these people do more than their failings.

Concrete version: Try reading the biographies of some famously talented people, you'll find that 9 times out of ten you really do not want to live their lives. Off of the top of my head:

Orson Welles reinvented cinema at the age of 25. However, his life following this triumph was one of artistic failure and a horrendous mismanagement of his finances that left him broke for most of his life.

David Bowie recorded Space Oddity at the age of 22 and Ziggy Stardust at 25. But by 29 he was so deep into cocaine and alcohol abuse he blacked out the recording of an entire album (Station to Station).

Nobody denies the genius of Richard Wagner, Frederic Chopin, Thomas Edison, or Steve Jobs. Nor do they deny the fact that these men were titanic assholes.

Come up with a list of your own, it's fun!
posted by Ndwright at 7:27 PM on July 7, 2012

Remember that for every single person doing better than you, 95% of the world is probably doing worse. Enjoy the middlin' amount of success and charge forward.
posted by talldean at 10:11 AM on July 11, 2012

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