Here’s the healthy way to compare yourself to other people

Turn a destructive habit into an instructive and constructive force.
Turn a destructive habit into an instructive and constructive force.
Image: Reuters/Mohammed Salem
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

A comparison habit can wreak psychological havoc, generating envy and leading to depression, so common wisdom has long warned against it. Writer Mark Twain once said, “comparison is the death of joy,” and philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti told admirers, “I never compare myself with anybody, but I learn from everybody, including presumptuous idiots.”

Yet comparison is cultivated culturally and starts early, in families and at school, continuing through adulthood. It’s a habit that’s particularly hard to break. So if you can’t quit, try turning the habit to your advantage by learning from comparisons.

To become truly incomparable, compare wisely. Do it right. Compare to gain liberating perspective, says Ming Hai, a Zen Buddhist monk and abbot of the Bailin temple near Beijing, China.  He believes that when we examine comparisons deeply, we can pierce illusions about relative superiority and inferiority and be more at peace with ourselves and others.

On the Aug. 4 episode of his weekly podcast, Shifu Says, the monk discussed comparisons, responding to a query from Peter, a 40-year-old Hong Kong teacher who has started avoiding his materially successful friends because he feels inferior to them. Peter’s friends are kind to him but he can’t manage his own emotions in their presence.

The zen master told Peter to face his friends and fears, promising the bad feelings will fade upon close examination. ”We should notice the differences between people and be aware of them while maintaining a quiet heart,” says the abbot. By letting money mar friendships, Peter is emphasizing its importance rather than simply acknowledging circumstances. ”Know the difference but have no reaction,” says the zen master.

In other words, comparison doesn’t require judgment. If you feel pain, face it, he says. Unpleasant emotions are a call to examine what we really value.

Advice in action

According to the abbot, Peter is likely to discover that his feelings are fleeting. And the zen master is right. That’s what happens when I apply that advice.

My job involves constant comparison and it would be totally maddening if I didn’t get a handle on the habit. Writers at Quartz can measure themselves against one another on a minute-to-minute basis, literally. Our stories generate metrics and the numbers seem to tell us about our relative success or failure. Whether you read and share what we write decides our rank, which can and does change throughout the day.

I have yet to talk to a writer who doesn’t feel dismay about these rankings, which can make us feel great or terrible. One solution is to ignore metrics altogether. Another is to examine personal reactions and ask what’s behind them.  When I do the latter, thinking rationally, I find any pain about comparisons fades naturally.

Every writer has strengths and weaknesses, different circumstances, experiences and interests, personal flourishes, and each succeeds regularly. That’s what’s needed in order to reach the many different types of readers who exist. In the details, we’re all totally different and in general we’re all similar, everyone struggling and succeeding.

To the extent that I feel bad on any given day, it’s often got a lot to do with how quickly the good feelings of previous successes fade. When I remember that I can get back to what’s important, focusing on my own writing.

Master of comparison

If you can’t examine your feelings neutrally, use them as fuel. That’s what JT McCormick, president of the Austin, Texas, publishing company Book in a Box, did. Born in the 1970s to a pimp and teenage orphan in Dayton, Ohio, McCormick mastered advantageous comparison, using it to make his way from poverty to wealth. In his 2017 autobiography I Got There, he explains that by daring to compare, he learned what was possible.

McCormick first saw big homes as a teenager and vowed to someday live in one. This got him interested in business. At jobs, he dared to compare himself to company leaders and copy them. He studied how they spoke and dressed, attempting to discern the elements of success, and then he did the same, tweaking to suit his style.

It worked. Still, it’s notable that McCormick was careful. He compared, yet measured success by his own yardstick. He didn’t expect to immediately become company president just because he memorized leaders’ speech patterns. He compared himself to people whose lives he admired and worked hard until he had that life. Now, he talks to kids in juvenile detention in the hopes they will dare to compare and copy him.

So if you can’t stop comparing, turn this tendency to your advantage. Look very closely at those people you both admire and disdain to dissolve any pain and discover why you’re incomparable.