“Should you compare yourself to others when attempting self improvement?”
That’s what we debated this morning at the local coffee shop. It started because a young guy said, “I try not to compare myself to other people” – his intention was to imply that you are somehow a better person if you don’t. It was some sort of pop-culture, Buddhist-like reaction. It’s common wisdom right?
When, I heard him say this, I thought silently to myself, that’s interesting, because I don’t even know how to make that delineation anymore. I think comparison is fundamental to self improvement. Whether it’s working out, learning a new subject or just attempting to become a better person (Buddhism anyone?). Here’s why…
A long time ago, I realized that the old me and the current me are not the same person. This sounds completely obvious at first, but a bit crazy when put it into action. It all started when I was documenting things for work early in my career. I would write something down, and then months or years later, I would read it again because the task needed done again. As soon as I’d look at it, I’d say to myself, “Who the heck wrote this? It doesn’t give any of the detail necessary to complete this task, much less modify the task for a new situation with any sort of confidence.” My first reaction was to be annoyed by the utter lack of foresight that “old me” had when he wrote it. I remember thinking, that guy was selfish, lazy, and didn’t write it all down. But, that guy was me, so I only had me to blame.
Then I realized, okay, I have to actually come up with a technique to help the future me who won’t be able to remember all of the things that I remember right now. I need to write to the future me and fill in the gaps so that when he reads it, he says “oh, this is pretty easy to do. I see all the backstory. I see why, I see how. I see how this other piece works that interacts with it.” I wanted future me to say to himself, “old me, you were pretty damn good!” 🙂
This thinking technique gives future you the warm and fuzzy feeling. Future you is very similar to a completely different person because you’re not going to be current you in two years when you read that documentation. This also serves as a good foundation for writing to others – though, I have found it’s always easier to write to future me because I have learned how my own brain forgets things. I have gotten to know future me pretty well, really well.
So, this led to the epiphany this morning while debating, that you’re really only ever you for a moment. The duration of “current you” is seconds at best. Ever forget what you were in the middle of doing? The old you is not the same as the current you. The current you is not the same as the future you. The only real you is the current you, so living in the present, as Buddhists say, is really the only thing that’s real – and also, quite logical.
So when you think about self improvement, you need a frame of reference – current you – you’re really comparing “current you” to a potential “future you.” The goal of self improvement is to ensure “future you” becomes something better. Basically, “current you” and “future you” are two different people. For any self improvement to happen, you’re really always comparing yourself to somebody else.
So, I don’t know how to separate future me, and past me from other people – logically, it’s similar.
Fine, then it’s OK to compare yourself to other people, but we all know there’s a healthy way and an unhealthy way. Well, first off, don’t take it to the extreme – to where you feel bad about how you’re performing now because of how the old person used to perform. Also, don’t feel bad because you want to perform better in the future and you can’t do it now. That’s the same as looking at some other guy at the gym who’s lifting more weight than you, and feeling bad about it. Don’t do that.
Conversely, don’t look over at a guy that’s not picking up as much weight and feel better than him, because that’s an unhealthy comparison because you’re only “current you” for a moment. Today, tomorrow or next month you could be injured, paralyzed, or find out you have cancer. Being competitive to the point of feeling superior will burn you, here’s why…
You’re really a summation of all of those past versions of you – you quite possibly will become the future you when you’re 70 and you won’t be able to do it anymore. Too young, too old, it has happened and will happen to all of us. Period. Let that sink in. Prepare for it. Really, just remember that the present you is composed of all these other yous that are in the past and future.
Now take it to another level, when you look over at the person at the gym next to you. Realize that they are… their past, current and future them. Don’t compare your current you to their current them because both of you are so much more than that. There’s no point taking the comparison to an unhealthy place where you’re thinking you’re better or worse than them. Think about it, they were a past them at some point and they weren’t able to pick up that weight, run as far, and didn’t know as much. Or if you feel better than them, just remember someday they might get better, and they might be able to kick your butt.
So, today, I tell you to break two Buddhist rules – live in the past, present, and future as well as feel free to compare yourself to other people – just do it in a healthy way. Think with more dimensions, this is a gift that, as far as we know, only Homo Sapiens has – use it. You will go through periods in your own life when you can and can’t do certain things, whether it’s learning, strength training, running or just walking. Accept that and live in the current you. Once you start thinking about it dimensionally, thinking about all the versions of you and them, the comparisons become a lot more healthy.