Welcome to my first newsletter of 2020! I thought it would be good to chat about why you shouldn’t compare either your successes or your failures to others. I’m always curious about what people think about this type of thing, so please respond to this with your thoughts! Thanks for reading and subscribing! Don’t forget to share!
Photo courtesy of my good pal (despite his allegiance to the Pats), Ken Beane. Check out his work here.
Your peers are graduating from college or they are purchasing houses. Some of them are probably getting engaged or already married. I’m sure some are getting raises or promotions and getting established in their careers. Some people are thrilled with investments they made a decade ago on a whim, others are hitting themselves for selling their Google stock a few years too soon. Some of your peers—even with their apparent successes and happiness—are miserable or disappointed with their decisions. It’s possible some believe they should be further in their career by now, or they’re envious of the career path others have taken. Through it all, there are almost certainly people looking at you, wondering how you’re so well kept together or accomplishing the successes you’re accomplishing. It’s a virtual guarantee they are not looking at you in the same way you look at yourself in the mirror; it’s just as true that they don’t see themselves the way you see them. I’m not just talking to my fellow millennials. To the Boomers, Gen Xers, and Zoomers (not sure if I have any younger readers?) that may be reading this, I assure all of you this is true. Everybody makes the habit of comparing themselves to others, as if there was some sort of path that we all should be on.
But there is no predestined path.
And you’re right where you’re supposed to be.
Apparently it was Teddy Roosevelt who told us that comparison is the thief of joy. Comparison is a natural tendency for humans. It’s hard for us to not think about others and what they’re doing with their lives. Even the most confident of your friends and family are probably struggling with insecurities. An important realization we all need to make is that there is no good in comparing ourselves to the successes or failures of others. If we compare our successes, we’ll find something they’ve achieved that we haven’t, resulting in tearing ourself down; if we compare our failures, we’ll find something they have failed at that we haven’t, resulting in tearing them down (even if they don’t know it). It doesn’t have to be that way.
There are many reasons why we shouldn’t spend time comparing ourselves to others. The first, though, is that the entire exercise is built upon a crumbling bridge: We are not others so it doesn’t matter anyway. No two people—not even identical twins—are the same nor did they have the exact same upbringing. The classic nature vs nurture debate wonders whether our behavior is based in genetics or environment. We can spend countless hours wondering where we went wrong or how life could’ve been different or why we are the way we are. I endorse reflection! I think contemplating how our paths have led us to this moment can be a valuable exercise. Every mistake and even every success is a chance to learn something. But really, it is impossible to say that if somebody else were in your shoes, whether they would be farther than you or not. Logically, there isn’t a ton of value in comparing, at least in this way. But I know it’s more complicated than simply recognizing that. We are often harder on ourselves than we would be on others. I know I am. It makes sense, we hold ourselves to higher standards than others.
Which leads me to my next point: There exists only one timeline that matters. If you’ve seen the most recent Avengers, you know the concept. You can break life down to its simplest components: a fraction of a fraction of fraction of a second. At any given moment, we are confronted with making decisions. As I sit here in a coffee shop, I am actively making the decision to type right now. I’m avoiding some work while I do this but I also think it’s important that I continue to write and build this newsletter, so I think the decision to work on this is good; now, I’m taking a sip of my Passion tea. What if I had waited a few more seconds to sip my tea? Now I just spent a moment on my phone. In theory, each of these decisions was made at a different moment or never at all in a different timeline, leading to the idea that with each decision, there’s a break in the timeline. In essence, it’s the butterfly effect; that a butterfly flapping its wings in Australia can trigger a hurricane in Florida. Here’s the thing, though: We only live in one timeline, so spending time focusing on how others are living their lives or how we could’ve done anything differently is futile. It only serves to make us feel like we’re doing things wrong while others are doing things right. I’m comforted by the recognition that the timeline we’re living in is the only one that matters because it’s the only one that we can observe. We can use that understanding as a chance to leverage our past to benefit us going to the future.
Throughout college, I was convinced I knew what I had to do with my life. I believed my destiny had been ordained since the beginning of the Universe; I was meant to be a doctor and to help others with CF. Life and the Universe threw a wrench in those plans. Once I bombed the MCAT, I was freed from Destiny; in reality, I wasn’t freed from anything, I just ceased to view life as if everything had already been decided, predestined. After all, the thing that I thought was unequivocally true turned out not to be. Maybe in another timeline, I’m a physician. Doesn’t matter to this timeline’s version of Tré!
When we become convinced of Destiny and of a predestined path, we relinquish ourselves of free will and control. It’s a restrictive concept—and yet it’s a freeing feeling—to believe in Destiny. What’s more liberating, though, is that the timeline is yours to make what you will with it. You’re here today because it’s where you’re supposed to be. Does “supposed to be” mean it’s your destiny? I’m not saying that. I’m arguing that you should accept you’re here where you are, and it’s where you’re supposed to be because it’s the only timeline that exists in our collective reality. There is only one timeline, at least in the way our consciousness is capable of conceiving right now. In that way, maybe it’s Fate that you’re here today, in the sense that Fate is what has already existed, but we needn’t pursue Destiny.
And when we first stop believing in Destiny—of a predestined path—it can be paralyzing and terrifying. Destiny frees us from our own control and it allows us to chalk all our failures as Well that needed to happen for me to end up where I’m going. Believing in Destiny and not believing in it are actually two sides of the same coin. When something bad happens, I don’t think it happened because it needed to for you to learn the lesson; rather, when something happens, it’s a chance to learn a lesson that will make the next bad thing easier to deal with. That perspective change is the key to all of this. As the proverbial arrow of time moves forward—until time machines exist, that’s the only way it can move—the moment of time we are living in is always changing. A few seconds ago are fossilized; you will never exist as that iteration of you again and the timeline is cemented in place. The future is yet to be determined. This is happening every single moment of every single day! The predestined path is a figment of all of our imaginations.
This is true by the law of physics. It’s also true of our society. There can’t be a predetermined path that we all should take. When we assume we should be married or have kids, we are assuming that we are all the same and that there is only one way to live life. In other countries, people have pre-arranged marriages and marry to improve their family’s socioeconomic status. In the US, there are people that marry because it just makes sense to them. We’re often told it’s “smarter” to buy a house rather than rent—but smarter for whom? It doesn’t make sense for somebody that’s trying to move a lot or travel or switch careers. But really, none of this matters. It doesn’t make sense to compare yourself to anybody else’s path because you’re not them. It simply does not matter!
I can write this not because I’ve never compared myself to others but because I’ve spent way too much time comparing myself to my peers. I’ve lived with a chronic disease for almost 26 years; I’ve lost my sister and several other important people; I’ve gone to college. My path only matters to me, so for me to spend time thinking about how others without CF managed college doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. And it’s not fair for me to judge those with CF—such as my sister—that weren’t able to go to college. This benefits us in multiple ways; it allows us to be more compassionate with ourselves and with others. For the same reason we shouldn’t assume how somebody else would live in our shoes—a mere hypothetical that can never happen—we shouldn’t presume to know how we would act in somebody else’s shoes—because it’s never going to happen. There is only one timeline that matters and it’s the one we’re in!
When one of your peers fails, how do you respond? Do you celebrate their failure (even if it’s your nemesis, I’m not sure celebrating somebody’s failure is ever exactly a good thing)? Do you look at their failure as if they’ve somehow absolved you of a failure, as if failure is zero-sum? Now how do you view others’ successes? Do you celebrate them? Does it make you feel bad since they accomplished something that you maybe haven’t or maybe you want to in the future? Whether or not you believe in karma, I’ve found that celebrating your peers’ successes is fulfilling. Encourage and congratulate them. You’ll feel better about yourself and they’ll likely be rooting for you.
Look, I want to be clear: I don’t think it is a bad thing to have high expectations for ourselves. I think it’s even a good thing to have expectations for others. We can make each other better people when we encourage others to be better. But I think we collectively spend too much time beating ourselves down for where we are in life instead of recognizing life is a journey. We all know it’s more about the journey than the destination.
Embrace the fun and uncertainty that life provides. Look at complacency and boredom as the push you need to take a trip or learn a new hobby. Cherish the opportunities life provides you with as chances to be better. Life can be unspeakably difficult. It is made no better by comparing our lives to others.
If you had told me a decade ago—hell, even the day I graduated college—where I’d be today on January 5th, 2020, I’d be both deeply disappointed and profoundly proud. That’s because the future we envision for ourselves is an approximation of the one that will exist. Some of the things you desperately want, you will earn. There will be dreams you’d give anything for that will never come to fruition. I thought I’d be a doctor by now; instead, I’m a writer, scientist, and advocate.
You’re where you need to be, because it’s the only place you can be. Your future is yours for the taking. Take it or leave it.
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