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One 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.

At 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.

Such 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.

When 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 bad light?

It's 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.

It's a very treacherous tendency.

I 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 areas.

In 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 ours.

If 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.


Instead of comparing our lot with that of those who are more
fortunate than we are, we should compare it with the lot
of the great majority of our fellow humans.  It then appears
that we are among the privileged.

Helen Keller


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Comparison, more than reality, makes people happy or wretched.

Thomas Fuller

The thing about comparison is that there is never a win.  How
often do we compare ourselves with someone less fortunate
than us and consider ourselves blessed?  More often, we compare
ourselves with someone who we perceive as being, having or
doing more.  And this just leaves us coming up short.

Sonya Derian


Resist the temptation to compare yourself to others in a negative fashion. . . .
If you are in the midst of making such comparisons--stop!  It is human nature
to do some comparing, and when we are in a good spot and feeling pretty good
about ourselves, it can even be positive, as it may inspire us to emulate
someone else.  But when we are wrestling with self-acceptance, comparing
ourselves to others is one of the worst things we can do.  It is tantamount to
scolding a child who falls off his or her bike for lacking the skills of a professional
bicyclist.  We wouldn't think of doing that, but when we compare ourselves to
others, with us on the bottom and virtually everyone else above us and better
than us, we are hurting ourselves just as heartlessly.

Gary Egeberg


Many of our feelings of satisfaction or dissatisfaction have their roots in how we compare ourselves to others.  When we compare ourselves to those who have more, we feel bad.  When we compare ourselves to those who have less, we feel grateful.  Even though the truth is we have exactly the same life either way, our feelings about our life can vary tremendously based on who we compare ourselves with.  Compare yourself with those examples that are meaningful but that make you feel comfortable with who you are and what you have.

David Niven



Why compare yourself with others?   No one in the entire world
can do a better job of being you than you.


Articles and book excerpts on comparison:

Getting away from Comparisons      Alan Loy McGinnis

Personality begins where comparison leaves off. Be unique.
Be memorable. Be confident. Be proud.

Shannon L. Alder

Don't always be appraising yourself, wondering if you are better or
worse than other writers.  "I will not Reason and Compare," said Blake;
"my business is to Create."  Besides, since you are like no other being
ever created since the beginning of Time, you are incomparable.

Brenda Ueland
If You Want to Write


Stop worrying about who's doing better than you or not. Be
better every new day than your previous day.

Constance Chuks Friday


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Don't undermine your worth by comparing yourself with others.  It is
because we are different that each of us is special.

Brian Dyson


Recently my fingers have developed a prejudice against comparatives.
They all follow this pattern:  a squirrel is smaller than a tree; a bird is
more musical than a tree.  Each of us is the strongest one in his or her
own skin.  Characteristics should take off their hats to one another,
instead of spitting in each other's faces.

Berthold Brecht


When you are content to be simply yourself and don't
compare or compete, everybody will respect you.

Lao Tzu


If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter,
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Max Ehrmann


Do not compare yourself with others, for you are
a unique and wonderful creation.
Make your own beautiful footprints in the snow.

Barbara Kimball

I cannot say this too strongly:  Do not compare yourselves to others.
Be true to who you are, and continue to learn with all your might.

Daisaku Ikeda
Discussions on Youth

How much time that person gains who does not look to see what his
or her neighbor says or does or thinks, but only at what
one does oneself, to make it just and holy.

Marcus Aurelius


Do not compare yourself with anybody.  Compare yourself with
yourself, for yourself and by yourself.  We are all uniquely
pottered and purposed by our creator!

Ifeanyi Enoch Onuoha

Comparison is the enemy to creativity.

E'yen A. Gardner

Never judge your strength by comparison, because there is always going
to be someone who is more experienced than you.  Judge by your
dedication to what you do, and your ability to make progress.  And even
if there is someone better than you, use that as motivation, and strive
to become better, because that's what they did.

Aaron DeCamp