The Tyranny of Comparisons

This morning, as my son was getting ready for school, he flopped down on the couch and said something like, “I’m not going to school anymore, I’m not smart enough.” Why would he say that, I wondered.  He’s a smart, funny, talented kid.  I should know, I’m his dad!
But then I looked at him on the couch, covering his head with a pillow, solidly convinced of his inadequacy.
Does this sound familiar?
I know in my life, it happens all the time.
20 years ago, I gave my first presentation on the tyranny of comparisons.  In it, I addressed the idea that, as children, all that matters to us is what our parents think of us.  If they say we’re pretty, or handsome, or talented, or smart, well then, we accept that.  But gradually, over time, our parents become less and less important to our perception of ourselves.  We become more and more influenced by the opinions of peers and, eventually, by the inevitable comparisons to the world around us.  We compare ourselves to star athletes, celebrities, professors, business people, and even our neighbor down the street.  We become embroiled in the game of comparisons.  And inevitably, we lose.
We lose for the simple fact that our comparisons are always unfair.  They are unfair in two ways.
In the first way, we compare ourselves with an ideal, whether imagined or real.  We see the image of a celebrity on the cover of a magazine in the checkout line at the grocery store, with a perfectly prepared hair style, carefully selected clothing provided by a designer specifically for the cover shoot, and flawless skin.  Before we even get to the sneakiness of photoshop, used to make the person even more unbelievably perfect, he or she is well on their way to being a paragon of desirability, superior in every way to us.  This is the ideal human, screams the cover of the magazine.  Behold and be driven to acknowledge your unworthiness.
And its a lie.  Oh, certainly ideal, but none of it is real.  It is all made up, fantasy, carefully prepared for a snapshot at false reality with one purpose and one purpose only: to make you buy the magazine so you can learn (and buy) the secret stuff that made the person on the cover this magnificent ideal.
There is a thing called the Johari window  which gives a way of illustrating the second way that comparisons are unfair.  It is that, in the case of others, we see what is open or known to all.  We see their car, clothes, job, house, family, toys, and any other aspect that might be easily changed into a post on Facebook or Instagram.  These are obvious, tactile and tangible.  They cannot be avoided.  But when we begin the comparison to ourselves, we also include the hidden area, or those things that are only known to us.  We may include things that are in the open area, like our job, but we include the difficulties and stresses that we feel at the job.  In this way, the comparison is completely unfair, because we have no clear idea of the hidden area of another.
Comparisons are patently unfair.  And a man of style and substance must call it for what it is.  It is unfair, and should be dismissed.
Knowing all of this, I looked at my son.  “Why do you say you aren’t smart enough?  Compared to whom?”  I asked, smiling.  He looked at me and was silent.  I had a feeling that he was doing the comparison thing, thinking of kids that seemed to have all the answers in classes, getting all the homework turned in perfectly, etc.  And in that moment I shared with him that hard fought wisdom that I gained all those years ago.
“Son, never compare yourself to anyone else.  If you want to compare yourself with anyone, compare yourself with the person you used to be.  And while you are at it, don’t shy away from action because of your past or your present.  Instead, act with confidence based on your potential.”  I said it all softly.  Gently.  I smiled the entire time.
And then we heard a horn honk, and he got up and finished getting ready for school.
I don’t know if he understood what I was trying to tell him.  I don’t know if he fully understood that I was trying to tell him that he had accomplished many amazing things in his short life, and that he was going to be able to accomplish many more amazing things.  I don’t know if he believed it.  But he took action.  And so did I.  I reminded both him and myself that comparisons, no matter how accurate we may believe we make them, can never be fair and always result in a lower perception of our value and worth.
And I found myself renewing a silent vow that, as a man of style and substance, I would stop comparing myself to anyone except myself five years ago.
I hope you can make the same vow.
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Fall Wardrobe Upgrades

With the advent of fall, I start looking at my wardrobe.  Away go my shorts and out come flannel lined jeans.  Sweatshirts and sweaters  come out and linens and short sleeves start going to the back of the closet.  This is a time of rotation, and I love it!  It is a chance to rediscover old favorites and begin ramping up for chillier days and cozier nights.    

As a man of style, it is worth thinking about some things that can be done to spruce up the fall wardrobe in preparation for the onslaught of darker, colder days.  Permit me to mention five.

Out With the Old.  There are two kinds of old things in every wardrobe.  There is “Old Reliable” and “Old and Worn Out.”  Sometimes it is easy to know which is which.  Old Reliable is typified by the following

  • The item is still in good repair
  • You look for excuses to wear it
  • You wear it as a comfort piece, especially on days you stay in
  • It still fits you in your current body shape and type 

If it is old and the opposite of these four things, it is probably getting close to Old and Worn Out.  You need not throw it away, yet.  But if you don’t look forward to wearing it, consider donating it.  If you keep it because it still has life in it (and you hate it) give it away.  Just because you don’t value it anymore doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value.  Pass it on, and let someone else discover the joy of owning something new and special for them.

One New Shirt. I’m not talking about t-shirts, here.  T-shirts are something that we all wear, but they are not what I think of when I think of wardrobe for most people.  What I am talking about here is the kind of shirt that is worn for a reason.  A new shirt for the office, for church, for a special night out is what I am talking about here.  And one may be just enough, if it is the right one.  Once a wardrobe has been established, buying lots of new shirts/pants/suits should likely never be necessary.  But buying one new shirt/pants/suit may be just the thing that is necessary to put some new life in any wardrobe.  This is when I look for the best quality at the best price and often find myself looking for something classic with a slight touch of flair.  For instance, white shirts are always part of my wardrobe, but one with a subtle pattern to it might be something to splurge on.

Clean and Treat the Outerwear.  Last year, toward the end of the season, my wife and children bought me a new mid-weight car coat.  I love it.  It fits my style perfectly.  However, I know that it won’t shed water or snow yet.  Last night, I took 15 minutes and applied a high grade fabric protectant to it.  Now that it is waterproof, I am ready for any inclement weather that might arrive.  I am preparing to do the same to my overcoat.  Don’t wait for the weather to turn foul to prepare your foul weather gear.  Additionally, I have found that the first few times wearing a recently cleaned coat or jacket can be a doorway to feeling confident and prepared.

Check the shoes and socks.  One of the most neglected parts of the fall and winter seasons is the footwear.  Now, not everyone is going to feel it necessary to have summer and winter socks, but doing a quick check to make sure that they are in good repair is easily done at the start of the cooler seasons.  I do have summer and winter socks, and I have found that taking the time to bring them out early rather than late keeps my feet happy.  I do the same thing with my shoes.  I have two pair of boots that I wear throughout the cold, wet months and I have found that cleaning and treating them early leaves me ready to use them at a moments notice.  Waiting, on the other hand, has seen me wearing them and hoping that I don’t ruin them because I was too lazy to treat them earlier in the season.

Versatile Layers.  One of the things that I evaluate as I look at my wardrobe is how much versatility I have in the layers.  Can I wear a sweater with more than one shirt?  Can a vest be worn both casual and under a sportcoat?  Are my pieces flexible enough that I can make them work for multiple outfits if I decide to travel and need to travel light?  These may seem like minor things to think about, but a man of style knows that the details make and break the deal.  I have one vest that I bought last year from a major retailer on a holiday sale that is dressy enough to wear for a nice party and rugged enough that it goes with me every time I plan to spend time playing outside.  That kind of versatility is gold!

What do you think of these ideas?  Share some of your own in the comments field below.