Common wisdom (aka concerned friends and parents) will tell you not to compare yourself to others. But comparing yourself to others can be super helpful if you do it right. Plus, you’re probably doing it anyways, so you might as well get it right. We’re all different on infinite axes, and all of them invite comparison.
First off: Of course there is something to be said for the advice your friends have given you. If you routinely compare yourself to others, only to feel bad about your shortcomings, they are right: don’t do that. That way lies misery, envy, and a terrible habit of ranking people into value hierarchies.
Hierarchies are at the bottom of this. If you habitually class people as fundamentally better or worse than you, you’ll be unhappy, because there will always be somebody better, richer, prettier, stronger or more productive than you. It’s a numbers game, really – with this many people around, you will always find people for unfavourable comparisons.
The basis for healthy comparisons is the assumptions that we’re all equal. Yeah – me, you, the homeless person at the corner, Leonardo di Caprio, the politician you hate the most – we’re all fundamentally equal. None of us is less worth or less worthy than the other.
Some people think like this by default. If you don’t, it’s a bunch of work to get to this point. It’s worth it, though – the payoff is the knowledge that you’re fundamentally ok. Or, like a wise man once said¹:
I don't think you're special
I mean, I think you're special
But you fall within a bell curve
Coming from the assumption that we’re all equal, comparisons don’t have to be painful. This friend can run faster than you, your colleague is better at dealing with a certain kind of problem, your buddy is rich, Leonardo di Caprio is prettier and can act better than you. Making honest comparisons like that is very helpful in figuring out where you are and where you’d like to be. It’s easy to look at somebody and go “I wish I had their life” – but that’s not quite the truth. You’d like some aspects of their life, and others you really wouldn’t enjoy – because a) you’re not them, and b) their life is not perfect. So instead figure out which aspects you feel you’re lacking in, and look into working on them, if possible.
Dispassionate assessments like that can make your life much easier, too. For example, a friend of mine recently found a solution to a personal problem I’m also working on. But he’s terribly clever, way more intelligent than me, and his solution is matched to his intelligence. I might be able to use it, but it would be uncomfortable and awkward. The fact that I can just look at the two of us, judge him to be more intelligent, and resolve to look for a solution that fits me better – it’s a base for happiness.
Don’t tie your self-worth to comparisons. But do compare yourself to others in the knowledge that we’re all equal.
¹ Tim Minchin, If I Didn’t Have You