Aside

Infected with Comparisonitis

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.


(image by artist: http://wardschumaker.blogspot.com/)

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.

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15 Responses:

  1. Girish. September 20, 2011 at 4:21 am  |  

    Well said, I have the same feeling but in all together different level. “Back to work” is the way forward in this scenario. Critics are different form comparisonitis, they point out what they don’t like; but, comparisons bring out something like “What you shouldn’t be liking”…so, it definitely becomes personal and hurts you.

    I wrote something very similar about why “The ‘NO’ isn’t personal” at http://www.gpod.in.

    Reply
  2. Khalid. September 20, 2011 at 7:39 am  |  

    Great post Nilofer.

    I too have this disease. I’ve been always a UNIX specialist at work but I kept envying my Windows specialist people because the control the infrastructure and so their work are very much known to users and management. Not like my role which is a bit hidden and no one knows what I’m doing until a huge problem happen to the servers!

    I’ve been always thinking that the grace is greener the other side.

    I admit that this feeling is still there but I managed to overcome this by focusing instead on how I progress the career ladder ahead of me. I deny this fact by saying that I should think BIG and not focus only at my speciality! I should consider this as temporary stage until I get to managerial level!

    Thanks again Nilofer for giving me the chance to express my comparisonitis disease :)

    Regards,
    Khalid

    Reply
  3. Chris Glennie. September 20, 2011 at 10:24 am  |  

    I think I’ve had this all my life, and no doubt it makes me strive, but often for the outside look of the thing, not any inner worth. It also does, as you, say, make you take your eye of the task in hand and doing it as well as possible: and guess what, if you do that, other things follow. Trying now to find that thing that is me, that I don’t need to see in others and compare myself to. Thanks for the post – and the confession!

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. September 20, 2011 at 8:15 pm  |  

      Chris –
      I think I ran from this feeling so much that it gave me the “booster engine” to perform for many, many years. But am finding that doing things from a source of passion feels quite different than the edginess of before. Hope same is true for you.
      Nilofer

      Reply
  4. Nilofer Merchant. September 20, 2011 at 2:42 pm  |  

    Got this in my inbox today and it seemed a perfect fit for this post.

    “Don’t listen to those who say, ‘You’re taking too big a chance.’ Michelangelo would have painted the Sistine floor, and it would surely be rubbed out by today. Most important, don’t listen when the little voice of fear inside you rears its ugly head and says. ‘They’re all smarter than you out there. They’re more talented, they’re taller, blonder, prettier, luckier, and they have connections. I firmly believe that if you follow a path that interests you, not to the exclusion of love, sensitivity, and cooperation with others, but with the strength of conviction that you can move others by your own efforts, and do not make success or failure the criteria by which you live, the chances are you’ll be a person worthy of your own respects.”

    - Neil Simon, is an American playwright and screenwriter.

    Reply
  5. Margaret. September 20, 2011 at 8:09 pm  |  

    Now I have another thing to admire you for – showing vulnerability on a topic that most executives wouldn’t touch with a 10 foot pole. Your writing is brilliant, and you are more in touch with the emotional triggers around work and value creation than most authors or speakers that I read and listen to. Today – give yourself permission to do the la-la-la thing. Then keep blogging, writing and speaking without comparison to whoever else is out there. You are making a difference. And BTW – I know what it feels like to be “at the other table”. Sorry you were treated that way. It sucks.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. September 20, 2011 at 8:14 pm  |  

      Margaret
      Thanks for the compliment and the permission. (and I’m fairly sure the “at the other table” decision was done by someone who didn’t realize we actually all like each other…).
      Back to work I go.
      Nilofer

      Reply
  6. Glen Lubbert. September 20, 2011 at 9:27 pm  |  

    Boy this is a disease I try to keep in remission! I too suffer from this, and I think social media is causing more and more of us to have trouble keeping this in remission. This disease is a relative to the Fear of Missing Out disease we get on a real-time basis and is a trigger to comparisonitis. The NYT wrote about it earlier this year: http://nyti.ms/mVmY3c

    Silicon Valley is a competitive place, it’s part of the innovation machine that makes it so successful. For me though, it can definitely bring on comparisonitis.

    I recall a quote that stuck with me from the great new show Suits on USA (I love this network!). The lead character, a lawyer, uses a judge’s perceived need to preserve his reputation as a negotiation tool.

    “I don’t care what anyone thinks about me. I care what I think about me.”

    The judge responded and diffused that in such a matter-of-fact manner that I was left to ponder his response from my own point of view.

    Yes, I certainly believe that for myself. Do I let other’s comments trigger comparisonitis? No doubt, and I don’t feel at my best when I do.

    Thank you for your honesty Nilofer. That’s what makes you so impactful.

    Reply
  7. Andrea. September 21, 2011 at 9:43 am  |  

    Hi Nilofer, I am a new reader of your blog. I really appreciated the authenticity of this post, and how you share yourself and in that way bring this to all of us to reflect on in ourselves. I too, like many of the commentators suffer of this disease. More recently it has revived itself, with things in my own little business not going so well. It is so easy to take it all oh so personal!
    But as they say…”what you can be aware of, you are already more than”. Thanks for your blog and look forward to much more of your writing (please don’t stop!)
    Andrea, Johannesburg, South Africa.

    Reply
  8. Katrina. September 21, 2011 at 2:24 pm  |  

    A friend of mine has a mantra about this: Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides. I find that incredibly helpful, because you don’t know what painful thing the person you envy is going through. You may be the lucky one.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. September 26, 2011 at 2:21 am  |  

      Insides/outsides. Lovely.

      Reply
  9. CiD. September 24, 2011 at 6:04 am  |  

    7:30 am here in Paris, it’s good to have a little bit of medecine before going out for the day! Da Vinci has been quoted for saying “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”. Well, there is a lot of simplicity and humanity in your speech: it touches the heart and soul. I just recently discovered your work and your posts (pardon me I’m far from being done with reading them!). And I already have one regret: I never had you as a manager! :-)

    Thanks for your generosity.

    Reply
  10. Taufiq Habib. September 26, 2011 at 1:01 am  |  

    There is a colleague at work who suffers from this – and I am his comparison ‘target’.
    And due to his efforts I’m responding in kind! Yes its reactive…

    I have to admit it is motivating me and making me get off my ass and engage, but I have the feeling that in the long term this is not a good thing and will result in negative behavioral patterns which are not good to my personal development or to the success of my company.

    Taufiq

    Reply

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