Direction Unknown: Comparison is No Measurement of Success

Elizabeth Scott // Columnist  

Comparison is the thief of joy” – Theodore Roosevelt 

Comparison is also a terrible, self-defeating habit that we’re all guilty of; one that is undeniably made easier to perpetuate through social media. We’re trapped in a collective “grass is always greener” mindset, which makes it difficult to find contentment–especially in our work. How are we supposed to forge our path with fierceness and tenacity when we’re constantly comparing ourselves to others and consequently questioning every stride we take?  

Social comparison really fucks with our ability to feel fulfillment and satisfaction in our own lives but for some reason we continue to do it. We compare ourselves in all areas of life: physical appearance, lifestyle, social status, career and so on. We do it to evaluate ourselves and our current situation based on a misguided assessment of others, an assessment often neglecting to account for the intrinsic advantages they might have. Family wealth, for example, is hard to recognize as an advantage from the outside, but its benefits can’t be missed. This toxic comparison makes for an incredibly dangerous illusion of work and “dream jobs”.  

Social media icons, influencers and anybody else we follow share aspirational social feeds and skewed images of what careers should look like according to popular opinion. We perpetually peek into the extraordinary lives of the jet-set digital nomads, the wildly successful creatives, teenage CEOs and those people we haven’t spoken to since elementary school. But we need to stop using those people as benchmarks for our own success or else we’ll never feel like we’ve made it, no matter how far we’ve advanced.   

I’m unquestionably guilty of social comparison in every single aspect of my life. I overwhelm myself with thinking of where I should be based entirely and foolishly on the digitally displayed lives of others. Be it professionally, geographically, physically or mentally, I compare it all–especially my career path. It’s the root cause of much of my anxiety and the reason I often catch myself spiraling deeper and deeper into a pit of dissatisfaction.  

I gawk at the success of the people I went to school with in the same way I gawk at the success of social media icons. I compare their position in life to my own and poison my mind with thoughts like: how does she have a senior role when we graduated at the same time and I’m still a junior in my position? Or: that person gets to travel all over the world for work. Did I choose the wrong path? Or, my most frequent thought: how does that person afford that lifestyle and where did I go wrong? My constant comparison causes me to question all of my decisions, my job, my direction, what I want to do and where I should go next. My lostness is amplified and it feels increasingly difficult to lock down some damn clarity. 

The thing is though, what’s put forth on social media is a highly-filtered, highly-exaggerated image. By this point, we’re all fully aware of this. But it still creates an illusion of ideal work and “dream jobs” that leave us with a perpetual feeling of never-enoughness and ineptitude.  

Despite this, it’s still a total paradox. Social media can also be an immensely useful tool in discovering careers we didn’t know existed. By following and engaging with people doing cool things, we have endless opportunities to be inspired by the stories and paths of others. Taking inspiration from others (rather than comparing yourself to them) on social media can be valuable in guiding our often erratic navigation and generally wayward journey through post-graduation life.  

In an attempt to minimize my constant feelings of disappointment, dissatisfaction and wanting a career and life that I don’t have, I learned to redirect them. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still stuck in the habit of comparing aspects of my life to others and it would probably be best if I just quit social media forever. But my irrational mind fears that people will forget I exist if I’m not somewhat active online. So instead, I learned to compare myself to… myself. 

When I catch myself staring into the strategically-presented lives of others and my anxiety starts to rise, I pause. Rather than evaluating my own success and position in life against them, I look back at my own life and evaluate my growth–both professionally and personally. I look at the past year and appreciate my progress. Have I advanced in my career? Check. Is my current position one that will contribute to future advancement? Check. Have I seen an improvement in my own skills? Check. Am I happy in this role? Check. Can I afford to live and save money? Check. Okay, perhaps I’m right where I need to be.  

I pushed myself to recognize my personal value and unique offering instead of constantly identifying the areas where I lack skill or knowledge. Nobody else, no matter their success, can offer my exact combination of skills and experiences. The same is true for anybody.  

Social media is fucking terrifying and the constant need to compare ourselves is dangerous. So, here’s a reminder to myself (and to you): Stop doing that! Social comparison will only amplify and prolong your lostness if you continue to tell yourself what your path should look like based on the paths of others. We’re all headed somewhere that’s uniquely ours to arrive at. There is no schedule, no one direct path, no right way. It’s meant to be a messy, wayward journey and that’s the fun part. Embrace the messiness and appreciate where you are right now. Use yourself as your own benchmark for career success. Don’t let distorted displays of career paths fuck with your trajectory.  

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