When comparison isn’t necessarily a thief of joy

It’s virtually impossible to not compare yourself to others in some way. Whether it’s wistfully looking at your friend’s glamorous vacation photos or wondering why your coworker got a promotion instead of you, comparison is inevitable.

That doesn’t mean that comparing is always a negative thing. Sure, when we compare our behind the scenes with someone else’s highlight reel, as the saying goes, we can feel inferior. But we can also see someone else’s life and achievements and ask: How did she do it?

I spent one summer in college interning at a local newspaper in California. I was there alongside two other interns. Almost immediately, one intern was given a high-profile story about a police brutality issue. My first article? An informational weather piece about the latest heat wave sweeping through the valley. For those who haven’t lived in California, there are a lot of heat waves. It’s not really news so much as it is saying “hot weather is hot.”

I felt discouraged. Why hadn’t I gotten a chance to do that high-profile story? Did my editor think I was not good enough? Was I going to spend the whole summer writing about the weather?

I was feeling inferior, but what I’ve come to see is that it is possible to compare myself to others in a healthy and constructive way. When we compare ourselves to others constructively, what we really want to know is how we can achieve similar success in life. Sarah in accounting may have gotten a promotion over me, but what qualities does she have that got her there? Is she a good listener? Does she show a willingness to learn or utilize opportunities to expand her skills?

Upward comparison—looking at people who are earning more than you or are in some way achieving more than you—can help us realize the qualities and skills we want to emulate for our own careers and lives. I'm not talking about envy because I'm not trying to take something away from someone; this is about admiring, and mimicking, virtuous characteristics. It’s not about copying that person exactly, though; it’s about seeing how others are using their skills and seeing how you can apply them.

Kimberly Hershenson, a clinical social worker and therapist, echoed this when she told me via email it’s important to take action when comparing ourselves to others. “Simply looking at what others are doing and beating yourself up over what you aren't doing isn't helpful and will only lead to low self-esteem and negativity,” she says. “Come up with an action plan, or reach out to others for help and support in order to move toward your goals.”

As I later found out, the other intern in my office was able to write her amazing story because of the connection she had with a source in the community. What did that mean about her skills as a journalist? It meant she knew how to network. She listened to people and knew how to ask important questions. Instead of bemoaning my own skills or questioning my work as a writer, I realized I had an opportunity to learn from her. As the internship progressed, I took note of the people I met and the connections in the community I made. By the end of the internship, I was able to utilize those skills in an article that I was ultimately very proud of. 

I am forever grateful for that summer lesson of how to use comparison as motivation to improve. Instead of sitting and wallowing—or worse, harboring resentment—I was able to take a page from her playbook and utilize the same skill to my advantage. The entire internship was a time of learning, and I came out of it a stronger reporter. But the important lesson I learned on comparison is a good one to have both in work and in life. 

Photo Credit: Beth Solano