Comparing Yourself to Others is Fine
July 2022 - RSS

A common word of advice given to people that want to pursue a passion is to stop comparing themselves to others. The rationale is that you're only exposed to the strengths of others, and not their weaknesses. Instead of seeing a balanced image of a normal person, you might see a superhuman which can cause you to feel insecure, self-conscious, demotivated or burnt out.

My opinion: This advice is bad. This is because it makes two fundamentally flawed assumptions, that are essentially coping mechanisms.
Assumption 1: Experiencing negative emotions is something bad that should be avoided.

Assumption 2: The people you compare yourself with are lacking in many other areas of life; i.e. life is a constant-sum game.
Assumption 1: The Need for Introspection
Emotions provide guidance, they are our allies. Insecurities, jealousy and anxiety are strong feedback signals that reveal a tremendous number of things about our subconscious values and desires. Paying attention to these signals is an important aspect in psychotherapy [1]. Closing our eyes from this reality is a trade-off that exchanges long-term growth for short-term comfort. Of course the world is rarely black-and-white, and there are cases where making this trade-off is the correct choice - sometimes there's just too much on our plate, and we'd rather take it one step at a time. But it's a bad fix that carries opportunity cost.
Assumption 2: Harsh Realities

When seeing a person's achievement, many people will immediately think of all the things they had to sacrifice to reach that point. It's a deep-rooted defensive reaction that is not grounded in reality. I've met people who are extremely smart, attractive, empathetic and have a great work ethic; people who are successful at virtually everything. And yet, the gut reaction is to say "that can't be the whole truth; there's something bad about this person that I'm just not seeing". I personally prefer to apply Occam's razor and just conclude the following: there likely exist people who are better than you in almost every way - and that's fine.

If surpassing others is not important to you, there's no rational reason to feel upset about being surpassed. If surpassing others is important to you, then living in denial is the worst thing you can do to your personal growth. Dealing with repeated failure and the weight of expectations is an absolute necessity for developing a strong mental game.

Let's Look at an Example

You're browsing the forums and stumble upon a new project: a microkernel in pure x86 assembly, written by a 12-year old prodigy. You click on their GitHub profile and find they implemented PAXOS in Agda and contributed PRs to Kubernetes, Linux and Blub. The result? Insecurity, jealousy, imposter syndrome. Let's see two ways of responding to these feelings.

A good response includes introspection. It minimizes judgement of others and avoids excessive relativization/excuse-finding. Here are some examples:
  • The reason I got into this field is my love for computer science. The existence of this kid doesn't change that.
  • I'm very competitive and have a strong urge to surpass others. The consequence of this mindset is that failure is inevitable. I'm not the only competitor, and need to learn to accept defeat.
  • I feel insecure because I want to be a better engineer, but I've lacked the work ethic and discipline to see my ambitions through. I should make a concrete improvement plan.
A bad response finds excuses, makes judgements about others, and diminishes their achievements. Here are some examples:
  • This kid probably has no life, is autistic, doesn't even lift etc. (judgement)
  • They probably copy-pasted their projects from StackOverflow. (diminishing)
  • I have a bills to pay, kids, family, social life, while this kid probably has all the free time in the world. (excuses)
Note that it doesn't matter if these statements are true. Statements like this are superficial, and thus only help to soothe the pain of insecurity, instead of fighting the root cause.
Instead of stopping to compare yourself to others, my advice is to rather practice introspection and derive a solid set of values that you identify with. This process may reaffirm your previously held beliefs, but can also involve redefining your life's goals and conducting experiments to validate your assumptions. This can help you with goal alignment, self acceptance, and getting rid of ideals you believed to be important, but actually don't matter at all.