Why do we compare ourselves to others all the time?
I'm writing a book about losing your faith. It's a topic that I'm an expert on: I lost my faith a few years ago. God reached out to me and brought me back, which is honestly something I still don't understand all that well. Through that process, I've talked to other people who are losing their faith, or have lost this faith, or even who are considering faith in God for the first time. The little set of mental hacks I use to approach God as a skeptic have helped a lot of other people too. That's why I'm writing the book.
Writing a book is hard. It's one of the most difficult things I've ever done. Communication comes easily to me. I never have trouble saying what I want to say in person, on stage, in an email, or on Twitter. The words I want are almost always there for me, and in the order that best illustrates my point. I barely have to think about it. But books: they have so many words in a row! It's not enough to make a good sentence, or paragraph, or even a good dozen pages. A book has to work for tens of thousands of words. It has to be interesting and accessible or no one will read it. If no one reads a book, it can never accomplish its mission of adding to the conversation.
I had a breakthrough a couple of months ago. After months and months of writing stuff I hated, I started to write pages that sounded like my voice. I can't tell you how great that feels as a writer, but it's probably a lot like what my friend Jeb says hitting a home run in baseball is like. When you write in your own voice, words just pour out of your fingers and suddenly you can write thousands of words in a sitting. Those words are rough, sure, but they are yours–they have your heart and soul on paper. With the help of an editor, words like those may be worth reading.
I shared those words with my friend Bradley, and he told me that yes, they were good. After that, I sent those words to a friend of mine who writes books that sell lots and lots of copies. Even though this friend is really busy, he replied quickly to affirm that my new stuff was in my voice and had heart and soul. It's the kind of news that caused a celebration in my home, complete with a smile on Jenny's face and shouts of joy from my children.
I sent my words to a guy who is an agent, and I didn't hear back. People who are successful agents are really busy people. The reasonable assumption when you don't hear from someone like that is they have a lot going on. Of course, I never make reasonable assumptions about my work. Instead I assumed this guy read it, hated it, and told all his friends I am a terrible person.
A few weeks later, I asked my friend, Rob Carmack, to do a guest blog post. He just sent me the post for review today and it's fantastic. You'll see next week. As I read his post, the seed of self-doubt that was planted when an agent didn't respond sprouted into a rotten little plant of envy. Instead of appreciating how good Rob's post is, I started to wonder why I can't write as clearly and accessibly as he does. The more I write, the more I get frustrated when I see others communicate clearly. I often see people put into words a thought I had, but with a grace and readability that is beyond me.
A few minutes after I read Rob's post, my friend who writes books posted to his blog. His post was beautiful and grand, and I was swept away by his words. I sat is silent appreciation for a few moments, and all sorts of new insights about life danced around in my thoughts. That is until my little envy plant grew into a vine around my heart. It started to squeeze and then whispered these words to me:
"You shouldn't write at all. You'll never write like those guys."
That voice is right. I will never right like my friend who writes books. I won't write like Rob Carmack. I won't write like my friend Bradley either. Or Donald Miller. Or Rachel Held Evans. Or John Gruber. Or that damn Cathleen Falsani, who's prose is tight enough to bounce a quarter off.
I won't write like Carl Sagan. I won't do research like Andrew Newberg or Tanya Luhrmann. I can't play music like Michael Gungor or Matthew Perryman Jones. There are people everywhere who do things I love much better than I do.
So what? Why do we do this to ourselves? Think about it: I went from feeling good about myself and the work that I do to throwing a pity party in a couple of weeks. This change in my perspective came from envy. I know I'm not alone in this. I hear other people comparing themselves to others all the time. Men do it. Women too. Even our children compare themselves to others, and feel crushed when they don't live up to a standard they just invented.
What do we do about it?
We stop. That's easy to type, but hard to do. How do we stop?
First, we catch ourselves. People have a tendency to go through the motions of life without any awareness, but we'll never beat the envy cycle without calling ourselves out on it. I just realized why I've been so down on my work lately. As G.I. Joe always says, "Knowing is half the battle."
Next, we remind ourselves that we all have value. I bet I can fix computer networks better than anyone I named above. Not only that, none of those people have lived my particular life story. I don't know any other Southern Baptists who became athiests and then returned to faith after a mystical experience and an examination of neuroscience. I am the only person who can sing my technical and irreverent song.
Here's my challenge to you today: be aware when you are comparing yourself to someone else. Remind yourself of your own value instead.
Then go sing your song.