Comparisons and Yardsticks

I like to do things, especially difficult physical things. But I try not to compare myself to others. That’s a dangerous game that can lead to disappointment, frustration, and unhappiness, a lesson I learned long ago.

ComparisonsBut it’s difficult to avoid all comparisons as we are social comparison creatures. We automatically compare ourselves with others, whether it’s on looks, wealth, accomplishments, or any number of other things.

Since it’s difficult to avoid all comparisons, it’s a good idea to have multiple and varied comparisons, interests and achievements, so you don’t put all your comparisons in one basket. Eric Barker makes this point in one of his wonderful articles on Barking Up The Wrong Tree. See Mistake #1: You Can’t Use Just One Yardstick.

My father was always conservative about money and I grew up being concerned about money and the security it brings. One result is that I’ve often been envious of friends with more money than me. To avoid making money comparisons into a big deal, I’ve always tried to have many yardsticks.

Trying to avoid comparing myself to others, and having multiple yardsticks for when I can’t avoid those comparisons, has made life much easier for me and made me much more content.

Never a Dull Moment - on Castle Rock

Many years ago I was a very good rock climber and my great love was finding rock that had never been climbed before, and climbing it – doing first ascents. It was obvious to me from the very beginning that while I was talented, there were far better climbers on the rocks that me. Comparing myself to these climbers left me feeling inadequate. So I stopped comparing myself to other climbers and just focused on doing the climbs I wanted to do.

SmalltalkI’ve written several books over the years, some published, some unpublished, and one self-published. When I first read the Grand Inquisitor passage in The Brothers Karamazov I realized I would never be a good writer. But I put that aside and just wrote, ignoring the fact that my writing was sometimes immature and didactic, and that I couldn’t do description or dialog. I wrote what was on my mind; wrote what I wanted to tell the world. If I’d compared myself to the good writers, I’d never have put another word on paper (okay, on the computer screen.)

IMG_0155I used to do art, of a sort. I could never draw realistically, could never draw people, and had no idea about color. But I loved to draw little boxes with people in them, and make 3-D pictures of coyotes in the desert (I even sold the coyote pictures at the Smith Klein gallery in Boulder until I decided it was too much work for the money). So I did the sort of pictures I enjoyed doing, and never bothered to compare what I’d done with what others could do.

IMG_0962Now I love to cycle and hike. My ex-wife was a great cyclist and competed in the Olympics, but I was never particularly talented. So I don’t compete, and instead I choose long or steep bike rides that really appeal to me and do them, regardless of what other people are doing. I’ve done some beautiful long one-day rides: Colorado’s Grand Loop and Death Ride, Utah’s White Rim from Moab, Arizona’s Graham-Lemmon-Kitt, and so on. Any good cyclist could do these in their sleep but these are rides that appeal to me, so I do them. (One of my inspirations is John Summerson’s book, The Complete Guide to Climbing (by Bike) – it makes me want to travel to different states and ride the climbs he describes.)

IMG_0343I’ve hiked all the Colorado 14’ers and climbed via ferratas in Italy. So have thousands of others, so who cares? I do things like this because it gives me a goal, something to focus on, regardless of what other people are doing. I enjoy doing hard hikes and difficult scrambles because of the physical challenge, and because I love being on the tops of mountains, and I love novelty.

These are just examples of some of the different yardsticks in my life. I’m not trying to make out I’m anything special. I’m not. I’m just a person who has pursued various interests even when I didn’t have any great talent for them. I did what appealed to me, ignoring the far greater achievements of others. Just putting one word down after the other, one pen stroke after another, one foot after another, one pedal revolution after another.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but life is easier and I am happier when I don’t compare myself to others. Since it’s sometimes difficult to avoid comparisons, I’ve found that having multiple yardsticks – varied interests, experiences, and accomplishments – reduces the impact of any one comparison.

I’d love to hear your experiences and tricks for avoiding the negative effects of comparisons and increasing the happiness in your life.

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2 Responses to Comparisons and Yardsticks

  1. Are you kidding? How could I possibly compete with this post?


    Actually, I enjoyed it, thinking about how I describe my participation in Masters Track & Field. I say “There are a handful of former professional athletes that are freakishly fast… and then there’s me. My goal is to be fast enough that they need me for a 4×100 relay one day, and they carry me to a medal.”

    So, I’m still do compare myself to others… but with a realistic sense of where I fit in the mix. And then I try to beat all the guys with whom there’s a fair comparison 😉


  2. Douglas E says:

    Good thoughts Alec [and Steven too] – I think that everyone participates in the ‘comparison game’ at some level; perhaps the more competitive, the more comparative! My brother-in-law and I live the motto “The older we get, the better we were.” 🙂 On a more serious note, we also like to remind ourselves that there are precious few 68 year-olds that can do many of the things that we do. Sure, there are a few folks our age than can run faster, play better guitar, and so on, but at this stage of the game, we try to focus on the things that we can still do.


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