Last week, I felt sad and perplexed when the author of a book that I treasure compared herself to other authors and came up lacking.
The author Christina Baker Kline ,who wrote a book that I’ve recently enjoyed titled a piece of the world, spoke at the Princeton Public Library. I was in Princeton for a writer’s conference held at Princeton Seminary and when I discovered that she was speaking at the library, I happily skipped a conference event, so I could attend her outstanding presentation.
During the presentation’s question and answer part, I asked her to talk about her writing process. How did she get that novel written?
She explained that writing a book takes her a long time. Then because she had recently spoken at an event that included John Grisham and Harlan Coben, she compared her writing process to theirs. Wistfully, she said: They write so fast–a book or more a year–I wish I could write as fast as they do.
After the presentation, on my walk back to the seminary campus, I thought about the ways in which we compare ourselves to others. I walk into a room and within an instant determine my rank in a number of categories: I’m the oldest. I’m the fattest. My outfit looks best. My dog is the cutest.
The context seems to determine the categories. I think about age, size, shape, ability to complete a task, my kids’ success, I automatically gauge and assess. At the writer’s conference, surrounded by writers, I found myself thinking, I’ve published less. My writing is better. My blog has more entries. I will never achieve that degree of success.
What does all this comparing get me?
For one, a lot of bad feelings! To compare and come up less than is a difficult thing and yields negative emotions like jealously, inadequacy, lack of confidence.
Sometimes, we think that finding ourselves lacking will motivate us to try harder and get better; however, in her talk on Intentional Writing, one of the conference speakers, Diana Butler Bass highlighted the ways in which comparing our work to that of others interferes with our ability to succeed.
To make her point, Diana told a story about Michelle Kwan, the most decorated figure skater in US history. Before she earned all the awards and accolades, her career was faltering. She practiced diligently and confided to her coach that she was working to emulate great skaters, say Nancy Kerrigan and Nicole Bobek and Tara Lupenski. Her performances languished until her coach convinced her to stop imitating those greats and start skating like Michelle Kwan. When she did, her career took off. She became an exquisite performer who charmed audiences and won honor after honor.
The point is: find your own voice, your own unique way of contributing. Only you can be you!
As I walked back to the seminary, still thinking about comparing, I noticed a handwritten sticker posted on a sign across the street from one of the entrances to Princeton.
The sticker said: If you are the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room.
I’m not sure what the writer of that message intended. Are the words a passive-aggressive retort to people who are too impressed with their own intelligence? Or is the sticker part of a low-budget marketing campaign for an institution that wants to recruit students who are too smart for Princeton?
And what about those superlatives…smartest, fastest, best cook? The rare moments when we compare and conclude, in great humility–certainly not haughtily–that we are the most skilled or our kids are the most successful? When we compare ourselves to others and come up greater than? How does that work?
When I compare and perceive myself as coming out ahead, the feelings evoked can be gratitude, or they can be as unpleasant and gnawing as they are when I perceive myself to be a less than. For example, I visit classrooms in Haiti and observe teachers working in crowded spaces with few resources–a few crayons, a few sheets of paper, worn and tattered textbooks. Not even the school principal has access to a computer. I compare the situation to the university where I teach–supplies are ample. Every professor and every student has access to multiple computers.
In this situation, I am richer. I have more. But the resulting discomfort, maybe guilt, that I have so much, and the helplessness I feel because I don’t know how to share adequately or with impact is acute.
I tend to try and ignore those feelings by maybe taking another trip to Starbucks or binging on Netflix.
However, another conference speaker, Mihee Kim-Kort spoke about noticing uncomfortable feelings. She said: pay attention to the parts of your life that cause you to feel uncomfortable and disoriented because they will push you from your usual ways of acting and thinking and prompt you to be open to new ideas and creativity. Your discomfort can lead you to growth.
When we compare, whether we determine that we are less than or greater than, we flounder. But don’t stop comparing. (Could you–even if you made up your mind?) Take a giant step beyond!