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Jonathan Reardon is a researcher at Durham University. You can find him on Twitter @waterlego. He also runs @academicchatter.
As graduate students, we find ourselves embedded in a system of metrics that crudely represent our progress and seem to pit us against one another. Despite this, we are consistently told not to compare ourselves to our peers and to focus on our own journey. This apparent incongruity often causes confusion for students. Many find it difficult existing in a system that requires them to take seriously a wide array of academic measurements that may dictate future career prospects while maintaining a healthy sense of individuality, cooperative progress and community.
Comparison is defined as “the act of comparing two or more people or things.” While for some, comparison is a useful source of knowledge gathering, for many it is a source of anxiety and a route to self-doubt and low self-esteem. It has the potential to damage one's sense of progress, confidence in one's ability and the enjoyment of one’s achievements. While “don’t compare yourself to others” may appear to be useful advice, it is often unrealistic. Rather than framing the conversation in such absolute terms, a simple change of perspective may bring a surprising, healthier sense of comparison into view.
As with any intense, long-term endeavor, it is important to remember just how individualistic research projects are. No other person can conduct your research project the same way that you can. Each and every one of us brings a unique combination of experiences, insights and personality types to our work. Recognizing this is key to the realization that direct person-to-person comparisons are not productive, and further, can have detrimental effects on one's mental health.
It is common for students to think “person A can use this tool a lot better than I can,” “person B is progressing a lot faster at this task than I am” or “Person C seems to embody this attribute to a greater degree than I do.” In all three of these cases, emphasis is placed on the other person. It is this person that now becomes the focus. They are seen as the embodiment of a particular skill or attribute that the student values. The problem with this is, it is difficult to make an accurate comparison. This is due to the difference in how we view ourselves compared with how we view others. We have a highly detailed understanding of our own journey -- the good, the bad and the ugly -- yet we don’t have access to this information about the experiences of others. We see and feel ourselves in a complex, multidimensional manner, while others can often become idealized representations. With such obvious self-other perceptual difficulties, the basis of these comparisons is flawed.
An important first step in reframing comparison is to humanize others. To humanize, in this context, is to keep in mind the journey that someone has gone through to reach a particular goal. When you see or hear about someone’s success, try and remember that what you are engaging with is often an end product, or a point in time deemed worthy of note. Remaining cognizant of the journeys of our peers does not reduce how we perceive their accomplishments -- it actually renders them all the more impressive and worthy of celebration.
Making an effort to humanize others has many benefits. Comparing ourselves to rounded individuals instead of idealized representations is a lot healthier. When we don’t humanize others, we are binding them to a particular description of success and creating a one-dimensional object to compare ourselves with. As we’re exposed to more and more people, each with different strengths, these idealized objects multiply. Carrying all of these idealized representations in our minds can result in feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem and a reduction of confidence. To humanize another is to render this binding obsolete. It is to break apart the nature of what we are experiencing when we process the achievements of others, recognizing their multifaceted nature and, importantly, remaining in control of how we are processing them. This movement from a passive to an active process of comparison is key to extracting what will benefit us, leaving behind anything that may hold us back.
Centering the Act of Progress
There are times where a healthy comparison to others can be useful, but the most important comparison is with ourselves. If we constantly compare ourselves to others, we eventually lose track of our own journey, and of who we are. Our most accurate and meaningful comparison is to our past selves. It is often surprising and pleasing to see how far we have come. If you find yourself feeling like you’re the only one standing still, drowning in the apparent progress of everyone around you, look to your past self for inspiration. It may surprise you to realize that you’ve been moving all along.
Comparison doesn’t need to be something that we avoid. Through a simple process of humanization and a reframing of perspective, comparison is something that we can utilize to make healthy progress.
Is comparison something you avoid? Do you have any further ideas on dealing with comparison in a healthy manner? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter.
[Image from flickr user TheBusyBrain]