When Comparison Hurts
This morning I read a post from a fellow blogger. It was succinct, engrossing, fairly long, and beautiful. I thought about it while struggling to write this post.
My thoughts don’t flow like this other author. His sentences are pithier, his images more vivid. He writes from the heart and pulls the reader in with emotional impact. And he does it quickly. He couldn’t have labored over the piece for days because it contains recent information. I picture him at his laptop, fingers flying, never looking up until the entire post is finished and published ten minutes later. And it’s brilliant.
This hurts a little. Why can’t I do that? I am exceedingly, excruciatingly, agonizingly slow.
Some will say, Don’t compare yourself to others. I know they mean well. And I get it: it’s hard to be grateful for your ’96 Dodge when your colleague drives a new Jaguar. And that two-bedroom apartment doesn’t seem as spiffy after you visit your relative’s mountainside mansion with the dolphin-shaped pool, guest house, and scenic view.
It’s hard to be proud of your own accomplishments when they seem
compared to others’.
But comparison isn’t the problem. Coveting is. And that’s a response I can choose to indulge or not.
Comparison is Not a Thief — It’s a Teacher
Ira Glass, producer and host of “This American Life,” expressed the struggles of creative people in a video a few years ago, and an excerpt of his talk shows up periodically on writing sites. He offers encouragement to writers whose work doesn’t live up to their aspirations. (He was speaking off the cuff, if this transcription seems jerky. Listen to it in his voice here.)
“Nobody tells people who are beginners, and I really wish somebody had told this to me…we get into it because we have good taste. But…THERE’S A GAP, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good…It’s trying to be good, but it’s not quit that good. But your TASTE, the thing that got you into the game, your taste is still killer. And your taste is still good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you…A lot of people never get past that phase. And a lot of people at that point, they QUIT. And the thing I would like to say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of YEARS where they had really good taste, and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short…
The most important possible thing you could do is DO A LOT OF WORK. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline, so that every week or every month, you know you’re going to finish the story. BECAUSE IT’S ONLY BY ACTUALLY GOING THROUGH A VOLUME OF WORK THAT YOU ARE ACTUALLY GOING TO CATCH UP AND CLOSE THAT GAP. AND THE WORK YOU’RE MAKING WILL BE AS GOOD AS YOUR AMBITIONS.”
And this is why comparison is a good thing, because it forms our taste. When I read Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, it raises my standard. It improves my taste. And if I will analyze his exquisite writing, I may see the mechanism behind his lyrical prose and learn how to lift my own writing to new heights.
If I can humble myself and shun covetous self-pity when I read better authors, I will make progress.
Maybe sometimes what we need is MORE comparison, not less.