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
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
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.
Your life goals are most likely not centered around
surpassing others. If they were, then you'd also have to accept the consequences of
competition, and learn to deal with the repeated failures and the weight of expectations.
Bitterly diminishing others' achievements doesn't help you grow as a competitor.
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.
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
- 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:
Note that it doesn't matter if these statements are true.
- This kid probably has no life, is autistic, doesn't even lift etc.. (judgement)
- They probably copy-pasted their projects from SO (diminishing)
- I have a bills to pay, kids, family, social life, while this kid probably has all
the free time in the world. (excuses)
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