Individual Circumstances

For many of us, things in our life and our mental states begin to break down when we look around and compare ourselves to others. We can be perfectly happy on our own, enjoying our own flow of life, but when we see the neighbors buy a new car, when a friend posts vacation pictures on Facebook, and when a family member gets a promotion, we suddenly feel inadequate. Conversely, when we have overcome obstacles it is easy to look at everyone else who has not been as successful as us and look down on them, criticizing them for not being as strong as us and for not making the smart decisions that we had to make to get to where we are.

 

In my first example of comparing ourselves to others, I am referring to jealousy and envy that we can feel relative to others. Our status in the world will always be relative, which means that as someone else does better, our status relative to  that person is in a worse position. There is no global status meter ranking us all, but we unconsciously rank our status against one another all the time. It is stressful, and it is also all made up. Recognizing our status comparing impulses and choosing not to allow these impulses to drive our lives will free up our mind, our goals, and what we feel we must do to show that we are just as successful as other people in our orbit.

 

The second example from the opening paragraph of comparing ourselves to others is something I have been thinking about more recently. Once we become successful, I would argue that we have an incentive to over-hype the obstacles we faced and to make it even more challenging for other people to follow in our footsteps. If I had come from nothing and succeeded, and a hundred thousand people after me also came from nothing and found success, then my achievements would look smaller. If, however, I came from nothing and achieved great success and suddenly found myself in a rare group of individuals with very few other people able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, then my accomplishments would look even more impressive. What I did to achieve success may not have changed, but how it is perceived will change based on how many others also become successful. We have plenty of incentives to build up our story, trump up the obstacles we had to overcome, and to then criticize those who don’t make it. We shouldn’t believe the story we tell ourselves, because it is probably and exaggeration and will likely make life unnecessarily challenging for others, just so we can hold a special place in our own minds and in the eyes of society.

 

In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, Colin Wright writes the following, “Don’t compare your efforts to that of your peers. Everything you do should be customized for your individual circumstances.” We never know all of the challenges that another person faces. We never know what advantages another person has in life. And ultimately, for ourselves, neither of those things matter. What does matter is whether or not we are making efforts to be well-rounded individuals and whether we exist in society for ourselves or with the goal of making all of society better for everyone. Comparing ourselves to others in an attempt to monitor who is working hard, who is cheating, who deserves what they get, and who is high or low status will simply burn us out and lead to negative thinking and negative interactions with others.

Living Well

In his book Considerations author Colin Wright focuses on growth and success and writes, “maybe focusing on growth — or the measurement of it — is missing the point of living well.” This quote speaks to me about the importance of not focusing on others and worrying about how we compare to others.  When we spend time worrying about others, what they achieve, what they drive, and how fancy their job title is, we either feel inadequate or we overinflated our ego.  What Wright is arguing is that all of these comparisons between us and our neighbors, co-workers, peers, and the other people in the grocery line distract us from focusing on what is truly important in life. At a more profound level, Wright’s quote also speaks about the importance of self awareness, and what we should use self awareness for.  Rather than analyzing ourselves and critically analyzing our level of growth, his quote seems to show that we would be better suited by finding ways to enjoy life and lead a positive life rather than living with a focus on constant growth. In this way it is as though the best way to growth is through an oblique path as opposed to a direct tangent.

 

Wright’s idea feels quite stoic to me and reminds me of Marcus Aurelius in many ways. I am currently working through Meditations and 2,000 years ago Aurelius was encouraging us to focus inwards on ourselves and not be tempted by desire for the things that others have which we do not.  When we are not worried about obtaining the same things that our neighbors have and when we do not spend all our time trying to impress others, we can connect with ourselves in a meaningful way, and move in a direction which fuels us for more positive reasons.

 

I think that both Wright and Aurelius would admit that there is a difficult balance to be maintained when it comes to self awareness and growth.  In previous posts I have written that establishing goals based around growth is a more effective way to guide ones life, but at the same time, focusing on growth as opposed to focusing on living a well rounded and meaningful life still will not guide an individual in the best possible direction. We are still measuring ourselves and making comparisons between our current self and past self along with others. Focusing on these changes and gaging whether or not they are the changes we want or expect of ourselves does not provide the meaning to our life that we should desire.

Successful Growth

While reading Colin Wright’s Considerations, I came across a short  sentence that read, “there’s no commonly accepted ranking system, and all a person has is their own interpretation of movement, their own ideas about how much they’ve grown.” Originally I had just highlighted the middle section of the sentence about our own interpretations of growth, and I had left myself a note reading, “growth is naturally movement.” In isolation this sentence speaks to me about our constant evolution through life, and the lenses through which we judge our changes.  We see our own growth in a way that is different from the way others see our growth, and in the end, all that matters for us is our interpretation of our personal changes and growth.

 

Placed back in the context of Wright’s book, the quote speaks to the difficulty of comparing people and success.  We all seem to want to grow toward a future that is more successful monetarily, but Wright argues that judging ourselves and others based on our income is a flawed way of gaging success.  He writes that we often use awards, recognition, and accolades to judge our value and growth, but the sentence above shows that there is no way to truly equalize and compare our growth and success.

 

When I look at myself and where I am from a standpoint of growth and movement, from the changes and evolutions I have experienced to what has remained constant or become stronger in my life, I do feel very successful. I can examine the movement in my life and be proud of the changes I have gone through even though I do not have the most impressive salary, have not won many awards, and am not a well known public figure.  Wright would argue that I am heading down a useful path where I understand my own interpretation of movement in my life, which will allow me to feel positive about myself as I direct my growth in a direction that aligns with who I truly am and want to be. Chasing growth in certain areas because it is impressive to others would likely not move me in a direction that aligned so well with my internal interpretations of the world.

How Understanding Dependence can Lead to Gratefulness

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote of confidence, relationships, and dependence in her letter to James Harmon to be published in the book, Take My Advice.  On dependence she wrote, “even though we develop a degree of mastery and independence, we always remain alarmingly weak and incomplete, dependent on others and on an uncertain world for whatever we are able to achieve.”  This quote struck me as being very honest about our nature and our inner feelings in a world where we go out of our way to project visions of our best and happiest selves.

As our lives fill up with Facebook and LinkedIn, our online persona becomes a competition to see who can lead the most exciting, the most attractive, and the most impressive lives in both our social and professional lives.  The images we share with the world are our personal highlights, and the goal is to make us look strong, confident, and happy.  What we miss when we compare our lives to the lives of others on social media is the moments between the highlights, when each person must deal with self doubt, uncertainty, and fear.  Nussbaum’s quote helps me remember that I am not the only person who experiences these doubts when I compare myself to others online or in person.

I think it is important to consider how dependent we are on the planet for our own survival.  We are not just dependent on natural resources, but in many ways we are dependent on the systems we have built, people who maintain those systems, and supportive people around us. When we focus on how much we depend on others we can be grateful for the guidance, assistance, and services we receive from others. Cultivating this awareness can help us see how important it is to reciprocate those actions and feelings.  When good things happen in our lives it is tempting to blow up social media with our awesomeness and take credit for our accomplishment or good fortune, but I think Nussbaum would encourage us to instead give thanks, and to recognize the incredible system of support and assistance on which we depended, and from which our accomplishments materialize.

Simplicity

In his letter to James Harmon for Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, Scott Russell Sanders comments on the things we desire. Sanders writes, “Love simply. By that I mean, think about what you actually need for a good life, not what friends or ads have taught you to want.” This is a very meaningful quote to me because it speaks of the importance of self awareness, and of getting away from the pressures to buy and have things.

 

As a recent college graduate I love reading quotes like this one or hearing people talk about the importance of realizing what goals and desires you actually have.  Television shows portray a certain lifestyle, and advertisements fill your mind with ideas of how you should live and what things you should buy to be happy.  If one can spend time to understand that having lots of things will not translate to happiness, then they can begin to live more free.  I am not suggesting that anyone should abandon all desires for material items, but rather that having a BMW does not need to be ones goal or benchmark for success (especially at a young age out of college).  As I read back through this post, I am currently reading a book called Insight Out by Tina Seelig. In her book Seelig talks about entrepreneurs and motivation.  In a similar sense to what was discussed by Sanders, Seelig encourages asking yourself and anyone who wants to create something, “What motivates you?” and “Who are you?”  These two questions force someone to understand what forces driving them, and what they expect and need for happiness.

 

What Sanders quote also hints at is our competition with and comparisons against our friends, co-workers, and those we went to school with.  Striving for a lofty job title, a big house, and fancy cars just to be able to impress other people is damaging to yourself, your relationships, and ultimately your future.  I think Seelig would agree with my interpretation of Sanders’ writing, and could reach the same conclusion.  Having motivations that are external and based on rewards and social praise will drive you towards goals that don’t align with what you actual desire or what will really make you happy.

 

The drive to achieve greatness should not be based on what you want your external projection to be.  Learning to step away from television to avoid projections of what success and happiness look like will allow a person to be more flexible in their decision making and to become more happy with the lifestyle they already live. In addition, Sanders would agree, learning to be confident in the person you are and letting go of comparisons against the people around you will help you develop real relationships with them rather than having a relationship based on impressing someone with material wealth.