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Stay out of the Comparison Gutter!

Staying out of the comparison gutter is much, much harder than it sounds.  Comparisons come and find you, even when you’re being strong and not seeking them. People, like your “nice” senior colleague, ask you such questions as, “How’s your book going?  Did you know that our other junior colleague just published an article and a book this month?”  Your neighbor or your aunt keeps saying, “My son finished his dissertation last year; aren’t you done yet?” These are the questions that drive academics crazy, and frankly, make them feel really anxious, depressed, or both.

By Rebecca Schwartz-Bishir, Ph.D.

It is a part of human nature to compare things. Comparisons are helpful: they allow us to take measurements, evaluate for truth, and create expectations. They can make us objective in our thinking, and that thinking can result in beauty and invention.

When used to measure our achievements against those of others, however, comparisons can be unhelpful.  They often tap into our insecurities and make us feel really, really bad.  They can even inspire self-loathing, inferiority complexes, and hopelessness.  Odious comparisons can drag us down into that low place where all our emotional and mental trash ends up, what I call the “comparison gutter.”  The gutter holds us back from seeing our achievements, making progress, and treating ourselves with fairness.

As we all know, academic thinking is built on comparison and measurement. So how can academics strike the right balance between using evaluation to their advantage and living a degraded existence?

The problem

Other comparisons are the latent ones we’re supposed to just “know” about but that are rarely spelled out or clarified.  It is a common complaint from graduate students that they feel their professors know what students should do, but won’t tell them. Professors suffer much the same fate: departments rarely give clear tenure requirements.  In all cases, people find that they’re being compared to an unknown standard, which makes them feel that it is impossible to succeed.
Perhaps the worst comparisons are the ones we make in our own minds.  “My office mate got a grant (or fellowship) for next year, but I didn’t, even though I applied for twice as many as she did.  I’m such a loser.  My work is stupid and worthless.  I’ll never get a job, and I’ll be on the street.” One of the unfortunate aspects of being an academic and having to write is that most of us don’t anticipate these comparisons, and when they fly at us, we bite at them like a fish after an attractive lure. After jumping at the bait, we quickly find ourselves in the comparison gutter; many of us get stuck there.

Once people are mired in comparisons they fixate on what they don’t have or haven’t done yet.  They start wasting their time, muddying their thinking with negative statements, and they feel so weighed down that they start to sink.

Action steps

So what’s an academic to do when he or she is heading for the comparison gutter or is already in it?  Here are some steps you can take to start making progress:

Become aware that you’re comparing yourself.   Sometimes this comparing goes on just beneath the surface of your mind.  You can’t fight it unless you’re aware of it.  You can even write down what you’re thinking.

Start asking questions. Trying to live up to an endlessly unknown quantity is demoralizing; find out all the facts you can. Ask your dissertation or department chair for more specific requirements about what you must do and how you must do it, and be in constant contact to find out as much information as you can. Talk to successful people (graduates, senior faculty) and ask them for examples of what they did to fulfill particular requirements or how they solved a similar problem.  Having a model allows you to see your own work and your life in perspective.

List your accomplishments to get perspective. It’s likely that you’ve done a lot in the past year and have much of which to be proud. You’ve probably made some progress on your writing, research, teaching, and your life.  Overlooking even the big things is easy when you’re in the gutter.  When you’re in the gutter, nothing is ever enough.  By listing your accomplishments, you can also consider what might be holding you back.  If you’ve been in a slump, what are the reasons for it? Did stressful events in your life affect your progress?  How did a comparison push you into the gutter?  Are you obsessing about something that really doesn’t matter that much but rumination has become a habit?  Don’t just let yourself wallow; get a handle on the situation.

Adjust your thinking style.  Is others’ work always good?  That’s a black and white way of thinking, and frankly it’s false.  No one always does good work, just as no one is always happy. Keep reminding yourself that there may be something fishy going on when you find yourself in the middle of a comparison, regardless of who started it.

Watch out for perfectionism.  Do you have a fear of mistakes?  That’s a sign that you are a perfectionist.  Do what you can to relinquish your desperate attempts to control every aspect of your work and what others think about it, and just do the best work you can do.

Stop beating yourself up. It is unlikely that you have a personal character flaw because you’re not measuring up to that which you’re comparing yourself. Find ways to measure your work and life that are real.

**Warning:  Shameless Plug Alert:
Join the Academic Writing Club.  It will end your isolation and help you become more productive in your writing.  In addition to a coach, who can help you develop a writing habit and a healthy approach to your work, you’ll also find other academics who suffer some of the same fears and woes that you do and who understand what it’s really like to be a graduate student or professor.  Joining the writing club will help you get real about your work and get on with it.

Get over it.
 Is there always someone better than you are?  Stop tormenting yourself and obsessing about it; you’re not helping your ego one bit.  Take action steps to become the best scholar, writer, and person you can be.  Contact colleagues and friends to talk about your work and broaden your horizons.  Send out your writing to “safe” readers before it’s polished.  Take a dance class, meditate, or start yoga classes to bring some fun and relaxation to your life.  By living up to your potential, you’ll probably surprise yourself with the quality of your work, and you’ll be more content as you do it.

Making a conscious effort to stay out of the comparison gutter can put your feet firmly on the pavement.  I hope to see you on the path to success!


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