I got infected with a terrible disease this week. I didn’t realize it for a bit, but the diagnosis is now complete. I almost don’t want to tell you about it, especially in the gory detail, because it is hideous. It is equally raw, and ugly, and festering. I fear you will find me hideous and judge me for having the disease. But I fear that unless more people admit to it, and together we find a cure, more will fall by the wayside.
The disease is called comparisonitis. Comparisonitis is the disease of comparing one’s accomplishments to another’s to determine relative importance, etc. It may specifically refer to: jobs, titles, income, but also perception of importance and relevance on the social grid of life. Never you mind that it’s not in Wikipedia, it’s a real disease.
Comparisonitis infection can happen through real life or on line transactions. For me, the initial infection started with being compared to Eric Ries, of the Lean Startup Movement and, as of last week, a best seller. I got told by Merijn Terheggen that I needed to crisp up what I care about/write about/brand myself on into a “lean startup” kind of movement. His finding me wanting made me feeling inadequate. The following day, I got several emails from friends attending the Human Potential Economist conference, asking why peers of mine like Dev Patnaik, John Hagel and Peter Sims are speaking, but not me. And then tweets from the same conference on “how matters” by an author named dov seidman who captures the need for more collaborative approaches. What drew my attention most was that he got Bill Clinton to write his forward. And I felt, instantly, beneath all of them. And, it turns out that comparisonitis is not just limited to the professional realm. I went to my stepdaughters’ bridal shower only to find her sister, future mother-in-law and mother all at one table (i.e. the family) while I (the stepmom) was at another. I felt on the outside looking in.
Not pretty right? Even as I write this, it seems to me these stories embody grotesqueness much in the same way as, say, vomit. You likely recoil, take a move backward, create a face of disgust, and had a icky feeling likely just spread over you. I’m so sorry for that. And, yes it’s gross. I admit it. I am grossed out by own thoughts here. While I know they do not reflect a reality, I am still feeling them. Alas, my own response (even now) is to want to stop writing, deny that comparisonitis ever occurred, and move right along. You might imagine me putting on happy face, or putting my fingers in my ears and singing lalala to block out the noise and create an internal silence. I fight that urge now, in the hopes of shedding light onto it – for you, and for me.
The fact is that these feelings of inadequacy hold some truths for me. Yes, I want so much to know the zen of what I am aiming to say myself, so I can share it and thus find or form a tribe around the change that is needed in the world. And, yes, I would like to be a best seller but more importantly, I want to create a body of work worthy of many people reading it because it genuinely helps people or organizations to be more kick-ass. Do I want to speak at the Economist? I actually don’t know the answer to that in specific. I do know I want to speak at venues that want to engage the dialogue of how humans are central to the success equation. And of course, I want the loving relationships that matter and central to a sense of joy, to thrive. Those truths were there before this onset of comparisonitis. But, perhaps I wasn’t listening well to them? Or perhaps I let others’ voices get to me? This seems to happen, every now and then.
The joke of comparisonitis is that it might create more amplification of the truths but it doesn’t make any difference, or change anything, or get you any further to your aspirations. Comparisonitis creates a proverbial stick to beat oneself up by. The “I am not as good as x, or y, or z” is a voice of a tyrant. The voice has a lure in it, which is to deny my own role in the work, because once comparisonitis sets in, I can just admit to myself that really “I’m not good enough” (and never will be) so I can give up. Comparisonitis also creates the illusion of a proverbial carrot that some perfection is to be found, if you just go around the next corner. The thinking is that if I could just do a little more, be a little more ____, or become a little better at something, then, oh then, I would be … alright. Maybe, even we would be (can we imagine this?)…perfect. We could all imagine a day or time where each of us would be worthy to get the carrot, and never fear the stick ever, ever again. [Insert: a sigh of relief.]
Comparisonitis is a chronic disease. From what I can tell in my completely unscientific research, it can go into remission and you can live your life well, if you manage it. (Typical rules apply: get enough laughter, sleep, and perspective of good friends.) But it can always flare back up.
To manage it, we must realize there is no such perfection. The person who flies on Netjets probably worries because he doesn’t own a jet. The person who has a job worries about the others who have better title. The person who is seeking work worries because it’s been so long since gainful employment. Across any economic system, there is someone else we can compare ourselves to, and find ourselves wanting. Whether we find ways to look down on others (because we enjoy more talent, intellect, status, good looks, or wealth), or whether look down on ourselves and envy others because we feel we are not as capable, smart, powerful, connected, or rich as they – both of these are two sides of the coin that buy into the same darkness.
The cost to this darkness is huge. Comparisonities create a separation between people; it is the ultimate in hierarchical thinking that says any one of us are better than the other. It leads to disharmony, not harmony. It leads to hate, not love. It leads to consumption, not satisfaction. At work it can show up in how we choose not to collaborate because of our own fears of unworthiness or the desire to stay one-step ahead on some perceived competition. All of this leads to separation, not connection. Within ourselves, and with others. This is a mighty big cost.
The only thing we need lies within us already. What we most need is our own approval, our own acceptance of our work. Everything outside of that is outside of our control. When we realize that we are already enough, as is, we set ourselves free from this terrible, vile, disfiguring disease. Power cannot come from others. Power comes first from self. When we spend time in doubt and fear of what we are not, we are not spending time on the work before us to do the best and let what comes, come. For me, that is to do the work of shaping concepts, or to make a lunch date with my stepdaughters, or practice the art of speaking and writing on ideas that matter. To do the work, with error and shortcoming, but with enthusiasm and great devotion – that is what is worthy as Theodore Roosevelt once said. And it seems this is the way we fight comparisonitis: to put the attention back on the work that needs to get done that each of us are uniquely called on to do. By doing so, we take back our own identity/voice/power by not trying to fit in, but by owning how we stand out. That moves us one more inch towards kick-ass-ness.
It would be so much easier to deny being infected by comparisonitis. Truly. This is embarrassing to share, but more than embarrassing to experience. But it happens. To all of us. Even if we want to deny it. But if own it when it happens, we have more power over it, than it over us. Only then can we conquer the disease.