Compare And Despair: How Constant Comparison Affects Our Work And Our Art

Anyone with an Instagram account knows how easy it is to fall into the comparison game. Living inside all of our phones is an endless scroll of other people’s accomplishments, collecting likes and shares, spreading FOMO and feelings of inadequacy. There have been so many studies on the negative mental health effects of social media that TIME magazine coined our incessant voyeurism as “compare and despair.”

And it doesn’t stop at social media. Our jealous eyes can scan the Forbes 30 under 30 lists or New York Times bestseller sections anytime we want. Every day is a new opportunity to hear about someone else getting the accolades and outcomes we desire for ourselves.

If you’re reading this, hopefully, you’re wise enough to know that the stories we see on social media and in magazines are the “highlight reels.” Everyone, no matter how rich, famous, or beautiful have their moments of turmoil and darkness. Yet, even those who understand this fact still forget that the constant comparison doesn’t only affect our mental health, it affects our work and our art.

When we see certain people, products, or ideas go viral, we naturally assume that must be what everyone wants. A little voice in our head prods us, saying, “There it is. That’s the answer.” We then, either consciously or unconsciously, begin shaping our own work to fit that category or style. We see what we interpret as competition and slowly place ourselves into the same arena.

Competition and rivalries have their place, but there’s a danger of becoming so focused on getting ahead or catching up to others that we forget what made us start in the first place. When we focus on the competition, we see our limits, we see our shortcomings, we see what we’re not doing enough of. We sit and watch from the digital sidelines and think, “If I could just do that, I’d be where I want to be.”

It’s this destructive cycle of comparison and competition that makes many creators want to give up. They scroll and scroll and come face-to-face, over and over, with what they think they lack. This doesn’t result in better work, it results in limiting beliefs and self-doubt. Through constant comparison, pain is created around what should be pure enjoyment. This rarely ends well for the creator or their audience.

We’ve been taught that competition brings out the best in individuals and businesses, and there’s some truth to that. One can’t deny the motivational fire that comes alive and inspires action when we see what’s possible in others. The problem is when competition overshadows innovation and limits our vision of what’s actually possible.

Peter Theil (Paypal founder, Facebook investor, and everyone’s favorite contrarian) says this of competition:

“When you’re very competitive, you get good at the thing you’re competing with people on. But it comes at the expense of losing out on many other things. If you’re a competitive chess player, you might get very good at chess but neglect to develop other areas because you’re focused on beating your competitors, rather than on doing something that’s important or valuable.”

According to Thiel, competition should be avoided as it leads to fighting over scraps in already crowded markets. Creating something new, however, where competition is limited, allows the freedom to create without comparison and without the stifling need to catch-up or get ahead of the next person or company.

“You must make an enemy of envy today. Today. By tonight, because it will eat you alive.” — Jerry Saltz

The emotional aggression that comes from jealousy has and can be channeled into beautiful creative work. However, envy is a dangerous motivator that typically steers creativity off course. It takes us away from the mindset needed to bring out our best work and the openness required for true originality.

To make the art and work we were born to make, we have to stop looking around and start looking up. Look up at the unlimited and wide-open possibility of what we’re capable of. Looking around adds blinders, narrows our vision, and dangles distractions that take us farther away from sharing our true gifts.

In his memoir, Shoe Dog, Phil Knight, founder of Nike, shares a beautiful passage about how the real art of competition is the art of forgetting:

“People reflexively assume that competition is always a good thing, that it always brings out the best in people, but that’s only true of people who can forget the competition. The art of competing, I’d learned from track, was the art of forgetting. You must forget your limits. You must forget your doubts, your pain, your past. You must forget that internal voice screaming, begging, “Not one more step!” And when it’s not possible to forget it, you must negotiate with it. I thought overall the races in which my mind wanted one thing, and my body wanted another, those laps in which I had to tell my body, “Yes, you raise some excellent points, but let’s keep going anyway…”

Stop looking around. Forget the others. Be wary of inspiration that quickly turns to comparison. And when you feel the need to compare and chase shiny new distractions and flavors of the week, do your best to forget the competition and “just keep going…”

Author of ‘Productivity Is For Robots’ | Writing about freelance work, creativity, and human connection |

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