Life is a race of two selves. No-one else is in the running. Comparisons are not with others but in the balance between who we were yesterday against who we want to be tomorrow.
The cult of comparison against others is a breeding ground for anguish, despair and self-loathing. It perishes creativity at its core and diminishes our ability to shine in the light of who we are in our own context.
Don’t waste your time on jealousy, sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The race is long and in the end, it’s only with yourself Baz Luhrmann – Everybody’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen) Lyrics | MetroLyrics
Academia and sports are honed at school on the sharp blade of competitive edge but where does that leave 99% of the population who don’t finish first? Look at the neurosis of Salieri when he compared himself to Mozart as shown in the film Amadeus. He was a brilliant musician but his vision was blinded; all he could see was that he wasn’t as good as Mozart. His passion for his music was destroyed by his greed to be the best. Instead of looking to himself and drawing on his innate creative force he let it wither in the shadows of jealousy.
Is that what we want to teach our children? Do we want to create little bundles crippled by fear of not being good enough; diminished by the comparison to others? I remember the competition between mums at Toddler group. Who is crawling, talking, eating solids, out of nappies, gracing the potty, ditching the dummy first? It’s crazy. Every child reaches their own milestones when they are ready. How many adults do you see sucking a dummy and still in nappies? Growth and development happens in its own sweet time.
And then there is the pressure we put our kids under as they get older, forcing them to define themselves by how they rate against their peers. How we praise our children inflicts an emphasis on social comparison that they carry into adulthood. Praise is most beneficial when it acknowledges effort towards intrinsic development, not when it raises a fanfare for being ‘better’ than other people.
“Social-comparison praise teaches kids that competitive standing, not mastery, is the goal. When kids decide that the goal is to outperform other kids, they lack intrinsic motivation for a task. Work is only interesting insofar as it permits them to show that they are the best. Even worse, these kids are so wrapped up in maintaining their competitive standing that they avoid challenges and opportunities to learn. Why tackle something new and risk failure? Social-comparison praise doesn’t prepare kids for coping with failure. Instead of trying to learn from their mistakes, these kids respond by feeling helpless” (Elliot and Dweck 1988).
Do we really want our young people to scan social media for their mates’ selfies in a bid to check out the competition and be beaten down if what they see is a mirage of perceived greater beauty, smoother skin, skinnier limbs, more protruding hip bones, more upstanding boobs, more chiseled muscles, a longer string of A****s, Double-Firsts, Gold medals & Distinctions? We are creating a new Neurotic Generation. Rainforests are being decimated but forests of Measuring Sticks are thriving. No wonder life coaching is one of the fastest growing professions in the US today.
It seems like it is natural to compare ourselves to others in order to create a context, a bench mark, a yard stick upon which to assess our progress but according to the paper “The Mindlessness of Social Comparisons and its effects on Creativity” by Ellen Langer, Ph.D. Harvard University, “While social comparing may be typical, engaging in evaluative comparisons may limit our performance and hinder a better use of our innate potentials.”
Feelings of superiority are short-lived because being pumped up on the back of someone else’s perceived failings has no basis for the building of rock-solid self-esteem and soon enough any ameliorated state starts to crumble. Recent findings suggests that frequent social comparing is associated with negative emotions and behavior such as guilt, blame, regret, envy, and lying (Langer, 2001, 2003; White et al., 2004)
The ‘Mindlessness of Social Comparison’ scientists ran basic level drawing tests with three groups: a Mindless group exposed to comparisons, a Mindful group (trained to concentrate only on their own performance) also exposed to comparisons, and finally a No Comparisons group. The results showed that the performance of the Mindless group who were exposed to both downward and upward comparisons, declined. The tests also showed that individuals who think mindfully about performance, concentrating on their own work, are less vulnerable to the negative effects of social comparing even when exposed to it.
This is good news. We live in a world that reverberates with invitations to compare ourselves to others. We are bombarded with images of ‘perfection’, but we can learn to tune out the sirens of social superiority and focus on development based on our own efforts and potential. In addition the study showed that when we do this we become significantly more positive in our perceptions of our performance, no matter how everyone else is doing.
So instead of comparing and competing, lets celebrate the lives and work of others and look to them for inspiration. Creativity, innovation, invention and productivity thrive on building on what has gone before; but let’s do our work whilst mindfully aware that our efforts and contribution are enough in their own right, free of evaluative and comparative judgment. This begs for a shift in how we raise and educate our kids, how we run our organizations and how we perceive ourselves, but if it allows us to think creatively in order to reach our full potential, that must surely be a good thing.
If you want to learn how to make the most of your abilities by digging for the diamonds underneath your feet, then work with a Creative Thinking coach. To find out more email Lou@createlab.co.uk
For daily inspirational picture posts follow on twitter @createlab Instagram create_lab Facebook Lou Hamilton