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.