of the most important lessons I ever learned about
comparing ourselves to others came from a student in one
of my writing classes. My classes include a
peer-editing element, during which students read each
other's papers and give them feedback. Near the end
of the semester, I was having a conference with one of the
students who was easily the second-best writer in the
class. Her work was clear and well structured and
showed very few mechanical errors. I'll call her
Kim, which isn't her real name.
our conference, Kim mentioned that she felt bad about her
writing because from reading other students' papers during
the peer editing process, she got the idea that her
writing was not very good at all. I was taken aback
for a moment, and then I realized the problem. Kim
sat next to the best writer in the class, who wrote
extremely well developed papers with almost no errors at
all. When it came time to do peer editing, Kim
always traded with this other young woman first, so the
first thing she always read was a paper by someone who had
a writing ability far beyond her years. Because of
this, Kim saw herself as a less-than-adequate writer even
though she was, in fact, a far-above-average writer.
It was her choice to see herself this way, though, because
she also read papers by students who weren't nearly as
gifted at writing as she was; she chose to compare herself
to the gifted writer, though, and she came out sub-par in
her own eyes.
comparisons can have positive sides--if Kim decided that
she was going to work even harder to become an even better
writer because she wanted to reach the other student's
level, then that comparison would have provided her with
motivation. Athletes constantly compare their times
or performances with those of other athletes so that
they'll be motivated to work harder and improve. One
thing that you'll rarely see with athletes, though, is for
them to give up and never compete again just because
someone else is better at their event than they are.
They know that improvement in athletics comes when we
compete against ourselves, when we're able to be objective
about our performances and work to improve them.
we compare our own skills or abilities to those of other
people, we're doing ourselves a great disservice.
We're often setting a standard for ourselves that is far
too high, depending on the area of comparison. My
brother may be much stronger than I, and I could give up
athletics in discouragement because I'll never do as well
in some things as he does. On the other hand, I can
run much faster and longer than he can, so why do I spend
so much time focusing on the comparison that puts me in a
not a ridiculous analogy--I've known hundreds of people in
my life who criticize themselves for not being as good as
someone else at something. And when I've pointed out
that they have their own strengths, the usual answer is
something like, "Yeah, but. . . ."
Somehow, they want to stay focused on the area that
makes them look bad. Perhaps it makes life easier
when we see ourselves as poor performers in certain areas,
because then we never have to deal with high
expectations. And they want to avoid focusing on
their strengths, because doing so just might make them
feel good about themselves.
a very treacherous tendency.
wish I could tell all my students and all the people they
know that they should focus on their strengths. I've
taken piano lessons and I've spent many, many hours
practicing the guitar, and I'm still nothing better than a
poor-to-mediocre player. I decided early on to
relegate those endeavors to hobbies, because it was
obvious that I never would get that good because of my
poor hand-eye coordination where music is concerned.
I had friends in bands, and I would have liked nothing
more than to be able to play in a band, but that just
wasn't possible. Rather than get down on myself for
not being as good as my friends, though, I focused on the
things I did well--writing and running and drawing, for
example, and felt pretty good about what I did in those
our school systems, though, we set people up for this
tendency when we make everyone take the same classes, and
then we give them grades to let them know how their
performance compares to the performances of others.
Kids learn early on to compare themselves to classmates'
grades, to brothers' and sisters' performance in
school. "Your sister got all A's; how come you
got C's?" "I got an A on the quiz--what
did you get?" It's a sad system that we have to
get over in our minds if we're to make the most of the
gifts that we do have, the strengths that are uniquely
you're going to compare yourself to motivate yourself,
then by all means do so. Use another person's
performance to improve yours. But if you're going to
judge yourself and make yourself feel awful because
someone else is better at something than you, then please
remember this: you're choosing to make yourself
miserable by choosing what to focus on, and by choosing
the meaning that you assign to it. Kim saw the other
student's writing as meaning that Kim wasn't a good
writer. The truth of the matter was far from that.