Comparison is the Thief of Joy and Productivity

Comparison is the Thief of Joy and Productivity

Teddy Roosevelt is famous for saying: “Comparison is the Thief of Joy.” I took the liberty of adding “… and productivity.” When we compare ourselves to others, we lose sight of what we’re busy accomplishing.

Lin-Manuel Miranda is Better Than You

Last week, a Facebook friend of mine posted:

Lin-Manuel Miranda and my alumni magazine make me feel like I’ve done nothing with my life.

I totally agreed. A few days later, I happened across this article (headline is NOT changed): Lin-Manuel Miranda even sings karaoke better than you do.* Of course he does!

Now I’m a big Hamilton fan. I’ve used lyrics from it as motivation on this very blog. And I will be the first to tell you I think he’s a genius. His ability to use musicality and rhythm and rhyme to match character, tone, and plot is remarkable… Shakespearean even. But I am not Lin-Manuel Miranda.

If I spent my life comparing what I’ve done to what he’s done, I would find myself lacking. By my age, Miranda was working on his second Broadway musical. He had performed a number of times on television and stage, and he had helped translate West Side Story into Spanish. I… started a blog.

Stop Comparing Finances

The personal finance community is a blessing and a curse. Kara talks about how finding the personal finance world literally changed her life and now she’s a female solopreneur.  Kate talks about the flip side of having so many stories: there is always someone ahead of you.

You and I are different. Our finances are relative. Yes, there are plenty of 30-somethings out there that are fully retired and traveling the world. There are also plenty of 30-somethings out there that are creating amazing, world-changing things and doing life-changing work. There are probably more 30-somethings out there in debt, many of whom likely have no plan in place for getting out of it.

Comparison is the Thief of Joy

Imagine you’re sitting in my living room chatting with me. Penny comes up and says: “Mom, check out what I just made!” I stop chatting with you and I turn to Penny and say: “Yeah. I could have done that way better than you did.”

You would be appalled. Right?

For one thing, Penny is nine. I’m much older than her. It’s probably totally obvious that I could do whatever thing she just showed me much better than she did (though Penny is admittedly WAY better at drawing than I am). How do you think this would make Penny feel? Deflated.

If you wouldn’t do something like that to a 9-year-old, why do we do it to ourselves all the time? We start by telling ourselves: “Look what we did!” and then we immediately follow it with: “It’s not as good as _____ but it’s alright.” Deflate.

Instead, compare only against yourself: “Look what we did! A year ago, we never could have done this! Look how far we’ve come!”

We should be able to find joy in our accomplishments. When we compare our success/progress to the journey of others, we rob ourselves of the joy that follows accomplishment.

Comparison is the Thief of Productivity

Assignment: Write a rap musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton.

You’re not going to readily accept that assignment, are you? It’s already been done. And you probably couldn’t do it better.

But this seems like a silly exercise. We’re not being asked to do the exact same things other people have done better. We’re being asked to do OUR thing.

Let’s use my blog as an example. I blog about personal finance. I am one of literally thousands of bloggers doing so.** If I only blogged because I was the funniest, the smartest, the most financially savvy, the richest or had the highest blog traffic or most online revenue, I would have stopped within a few months. I am none of those things.

If we spend time comparing ourselves to people doing similar things, we will stop making progress on the things we want to do.

It’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to work. Stop comparing your work to anyone else’s. You are not them!


*It takes major guts to karaoke to a Hamilton song in front of Lin-Manuel Miranda. Second, it’s awesome that he rolled with it!

**The Rockstar Finance Directory hasn’t yet broken 1000 blogs… but it will!

Disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links which, at no cost to you, helps support Northern Expenditure and keeps our heat on in the winter. Thanks!

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28 Comments

  1. TheRetirementManifesto

    You do realize you’re a better blogger than me, right!? You’re funnier, smarter, more financially savvy and richer.

    My life blows.

    Great post.

  2. I laughed out loud at your telling Penny, “Yeah. I could have done that way better than you did.” 🙂

    I needed to read this today after a few other FI blogs got me down with the income and net worth comparisons. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some brilliant people in my career — the types who make the “30 under 30” lists in national publications, get featured in the press, etc. I’m thrilled for what they’ve accomplished, but it can totally spark an inferiority complex, too. With seven billion people in the world, it’s ridiculous to always be upwardly comparing our achievements. We’re all different, and the odds that I’ll ever be the very best at anything are practically zero. But there’s nothing wrong with that.

    • MaggieBanks

      I’m reading “Think and Grow Rich” right now and it’s all about how the people with the ideas and the gumption are the ones that make it big. And instead of thinking: “Yes, we can make it big, too!” I just keep thinking: “Sure, the world needs some of those people, but the entire world wouldn’t function if everyone was Steve Jobs! We need people to do the jobs that make the world run, too!”

      • I am literally reading this too! 3 chapters in! Yes – not everyone can do the Big Things. Not everyone wants to. And we need people to provide customer service, clean, cook, care for others, do data entry, admin, etc.

        • MaggieBanks

          Goes back to the fact that if your job isn’t in a Richard Scarry book, its probably not super necessary. 🙂

  3. I think this is one of the hardest things to get over. We are exposed to it even more with social media. Oh look, all my friends are in a different country right now and I’m watching Netflix! But you know what? I actually really enjoy staying home on a sat watching Netflix! I think if you can successful not compare yourself to others, you can be at least 70% happier (not official scientific data). 🙂

    • MaggieBanks

      Big fan on watching Netflix… and those productivity articles about what company I could build if I would just stop watching TV should stop telling me what to do! 🙂

  4. Great post, Maggie! Ironically, comparing myself with others is one of the reasons I got into blogging. I kept looking for stories of families whose situation matched mine so I could see how I stacked up, but I couldn’t find any. Then I realized that no one else’s story ever could match mine, because my story is, well, mine. I agree with Tonya, social media almost forces these comparisons on us! It’s up to us to be content with what we’re doing and cheer our friends on when we see them succeed.

    • MaggieBanks

      Actually, you make a good point. That’s part of why we got into blogging as well. I entered this space going “no one’s story is like my story” but then once you start a blog, it’s hard to stop comparing – bloggers are smarter, wittier, funnier, richer than we are (as Fritz mentions!)

  5. Kim from Philadelphia

    Maggie, haven’t commented on awhile but just wanted to say hi and tell you how much I’m loving all of your posts!!
    You are also doing a rocking job with your monthly goal progress- woot, woot!

    Funny you should mention Lin (we are totally “Hamilton” obsessed in our house!)
    I saw an interview with him and the interviewer said he couldn’t believe how much Lin had accomplished at such an early age. Lin paused thoughtfully, and said “Compared to what Alexander Hamilton accomplished at my age, I haven’t don’t much. Basically I wrote two plays, that’s it”
    Talk about perspective (plus Lin is very modest)

    -Kim

    • MaggieBanks

      Hello Kim! Thanks for commenting! And yes… Lin Manuel Miranda seems like a legitimately awesome, humble guy. I would totally go to a karaoke party with him. (And Hamilton is SO.Good.)

  6. Ugh, it’s so true and I am so bad at this. Recently I went through a period of self-doubt when I found out an acquaintance got a faculty position at a Big Name Fancy School. I felt like crap for days, thinking that what I’ve accomplished has been so little in comparison. But then I have to remind myself that’s not my *goal.* My goal was *never* to become a faculty member and to work 100 hour weeks. In fact, my goal is to retire well in advance of age 65 (not really a thing you do if you decide to become a faculty member), while having fun along the way (and making up for all of those 60-80 hour weeks in grad school). I could get a staff position at Big Name Fancy School if I really wanted, but that also means a higher cost of living and probably working A LOT more weekends, evenings, and never being able to take vacation. That’s not the life I wanted for Adult Me. So who cares! Live this life how you want to. You’re doing great, self, and don’t forget it.

    • MaggieBanks

      I’m guilty of goal-switching all the time. When I hear about things like that, I do the exact same thing: “Oh that’s what I should have done… wait… that’s not what I wanted to do actually…”

  7. Hamilton is the greatest. We really want to make a music video of our dog as King George one of these days…

    Also YES TO EVERYTHING YOU JUST WROTE.

    I was about to say “I find this especially true in creative pursuits,” but it’s true in everything. It might just be more apparent in creative pursuits where the extremes of success show a wider gap. Take blogs — some literally pull in tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands in profit, a month — whereas the majority don’t make anything. It stings. And there’s always someone doing better than you.

    • MaggieBanks

      There are always MILLIONS better than you. Our only goal should be to excel in our own realm of possibilities.

  8. Wait, it’s not normal to berate your kids about how you can do things better than them? LOL, just kidding. It’s definitely difficult to walk that fine line between finding inspiration in stories about the success of others and feeling down when you start making comparisons.

    I see others our age who are doing well, as we still fight our battle against debt, and sometimes it is hard. But sometimes it helps to make some comparisons between your current situation and where you were just a couple of years ago. We’ve made a ton of progress, which gives me a sense of pride and hope for a better future.

    • MaggieBanks

      THIS IS EXACTLY WHY YOU NEED TO STOP COMPARING! Yes, I’m yelling at you. I have followed your journey and you guys are killing it. Your situation is totally different than anyone else’s. Honestly. And you guys are doing so great!

  9. I needed this today 👊

  10. I wonder how much of our comparison to others is pure human nature and how much is conditioning. After all, we live in a society where advertisers have told us our entire lives that we’re never good enough and we should aim to be better. Social media just makes the problem worse, when we only see the best moments in our friends’ lives and none of the mundane or awful.

    Thanks for the reminder that we should only look at ourselves for comparison, since that’s the only thing we can actually control.

    • MaggieBanks

      I just read something that said “if everyone was truly confident in themselves, all of capitalism as it currently stands would simply unravel.” Every single thing is marketed toward filling all your lacks. If everyone didn’t feel the need to change so much, the world would be completely different.

  11. Hi Maggie! Long time reader, first time commenter…I wrote a post awhile back on this same quote/concept. I believe that in such a social media driven society where EVERYTHING is posted for public view, we open ourselves up to feelings of inadequacy. It is unfortunate because every person and story is different – comparison will get you nowhere. Thank you for the reminder. It is a constant battle for many!

    • MaggieBanks

      Social Media does cause problems in this arena… but I think it’s an age-old problem that goes back to parents bragging about their children and then other parents calling their kids and saying: Did you know Johnny is CEO of a firm now… and then the kids are all quilted into being better. Humans have always been comparing and feeling guilt for eons! 🙂

  12. This is the kind of advice that finally allowed me to start completing my New Year’s Resolutions every year. Of course I’d get discouraged and quit running if I compared myself to all the super-human long-distance runners in my life. But if I compared myself to myself before I started running… then I was an unstoppable goddess.
    Anyway I love your blog! I used to live in the great white North and I kinda miss it. 😉

    • MaggieBanks

      “Unstoppable goddess” – This is now my life goal! I love that phrase.

  13. Chris @ Keep Thrifty

    Thank you for this – I struggle with this constantly. I am always in pursuit of being “the best” but there will always be someone better.

    The hard part is that competition is a part of what helps us grow as individuals and as a society. So how can we get the good without the bad?

    My take is this: life is not about the pursuit of perfection, but the pursuit of betterment.

    You don’t have to stop comparing altogether – you just have to change your comparison point. Instead of comparing yourself to others, compare only to your previous self.

    To improve the most, it’s not about competing with others – it’s about competing with ourselves.

    In action it looks like this – I ask myself, am I:
    – a better writer than I was a year ago?
    – a better software developer?
    – a better manager?
    – a better father?
    – a better husband?
    – a better Christian?

    I’m miles from perfect at all of these, but if I’m always better now than I was last year, I know I’m headed in the right direction.

    • MaggieBanks

      YES! That was exactly my point. You can compare against yourself in the past – that leads to growth. Comparing to anyone else is masochistic.

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