I Can’t Help but Compare My Career to Everyone Around Me—and Maybe That’s Ok

I Can’t Help but Compare My Career to Everyone Around Me—and Maybe That’s Ok

You hear it every January: New Year, New You. A phrase beloved by women’s magazines and the self-help industrial complex. This year, we’re saying ‘no, thanks,’ to this tired old tagline and embracing a gentler outlook. Introducing Favorite You, Not Perfect You, a week-long special to help you reset and refresh realistically. Maybe your best, most perfect self wakes up at sunrise, limits her social media habits and kicks caffeine. But your favorite you? She’s kind to herself, and celebrates the small wins. She’s going to have a great year—and maybe even make her bed every morning (or not!).

For many, a quick and simple way to put your self-esteem through the insinkerator is to scroll Instagram. You’ll see a mix of tan influencers with prominent hip bones on jet skis in San Maarten, engagement announcements or those pesky relationship “soft launches.” Heck, even seeing someone else’s successful attempt at sourdough might be enough to do it, if you’re already feeling vulnerable.

For me, though, the IG feed is no match for LinkedIn network updates—rife with flexes of the professional sort: promotions, new degrees and “new chapter” announcements. If Instagram gives us a warped view of a person’s appearance (come on, no one’s eyelashes are that long), then LinkedIn paints a picture of boundless success—where hard-won achievements, from new jobs to speaking engagements, are neatly and briefly presented in a sentence or two.

Here, I admit that the problem lies squarely with me—after all, everyone should be able to celebrate and share their milestones in whatever online forum they deem fit. I’m just a born career comparer, never not looking to the left or right instead of dead ahead. And I’ve always been this way. In fashion school, I was so busy sizing up the dress two mannequins over from mine that I’d accidentally poke a sewing needle through my cuticle. As an intern, I’d elbow past my peers to be the one to buy my boss some tampons (true story) and, unsurprisingly, at my earliest job, I would mentally rank my standing in my boss’ eyes.

And when comparing myself to everyone in my professional circle got to be too much, I changed my obsessive tactics to zero in on a single target—usually a colleague close to me in age or seniority—someone I could race but never catch, even if only in my head.

According to psychologist and clinical director of Blake Psychology, Dr. Emily Blake, I’m actually normal. “Our minds have a natural tendency to understand the world through comparison.” It’s an evolutionary survival method: “We know what is hot or cold, light or dark, sharp or smooth, safe or unsafe only compared to the other things around us,” she explains.

Dr. Blake also points out that the kind of behavior that I’m guilty of is called “upward comparison”—that is, contrasting yourself with those you perceive as being more successful or better liked than you. Perfectionists tend to engage in this more often. If we compared ourselves to a wider swath of people—not just those who are doing “better” than us, we’d actually have a more accurate sense of self. But that wouldn’t be any fun for the go-getter neurotics out there. 

The downside of all this should be obvious: too much time spent comparing upwards can foster painful feelings such as envy, discouragement, disappointment, inferiority, or even hopelessness, per Dr. Blake. “Instead of putting effort into working or creating, we spend time self-soothing, procrastinating, venting to others or avoiding work altogether.” 

To borrow a certain cliché: comparison is the thief of joy. But what if it’s simply the pessimist’s version of manifestation? Surely a little bit of (healthy) career comparison is good for you—like a square or two of dark chocolate after dinner.

To borrow a certain cliché: comparison is the thief of joy. But what if it’s simply the pessimist’s version of manifestation? Surely a little bit of (healthy) career comparison is good for you—like a square or two of dark chocolate after dinner. After all, we credit our success to our sense of ambition, and, well, what fuels ambition if not a little competitive analysis? Maybe I’m like a greyhound running after that mechanical hare in a dog race—the mechanical hare being a more successful colleague in this metaphor—I need something, or someone, to fixate on in order to get to where I want to be professionally. 

Still, it’s a good idea to identify the underlying function this behavior serves us: Does it inspire or motivate? Does it help build confidence and connections? Or does it slow you down and result in painful feelings? Looking deeper, I can admit that seeing a younger former intern of mine land a director-level role before I did sent me into a temporary career tailspin—but I came out of it on the other side with a new, better (director level!) job. You have to know when to stop looking sideways so that you can move forward.

Unhealthy comparisons also stem from the (false) idea that success is a limited resource. It isn’t. Humans aren’t companies vying for market share—we’re dynamic individuals with inherent worth. “As a human, you don’t need to be perfect to have value. You have the right to work and contribute. There is a spot for you and your skills,” Dr. Blake says, giving me the career therapy equivalent of a breakthrough.

But if that kind of mindset shift isn’t enough, consider turning your comparison inwards. “Look at where you are now, where you want to go, and plan steps to go forward. You can also tap into your own values, and strive to engage in behaviors that align with your best sense of self,” offers Dr. Blake. 

Finally, and in the form of one last cliché, don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle. “While you might think someone hit a triple all on their own, they might actually have been born on third base. There are many factors that contribute to someone’s success,” says Dr. Blake. And those factors are not often something we can control. They can be demographic, socioeconomic or just totally unknowable to an outsider. 

Ultimately, the (temporary) insecurity brought on by the odd LinkedIn’s homepage scroll is far outweighed by the ambition it inspires in me. Should that ever stop being the case, there’s always the unfollow button.

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