In hindsight, I find that quote, most often attributed to President Theodore Roosevelt, has often been true for me.
Growing up, the other little girls I knew always had hair scrunchies that were more sparkly or colorful than mine.
In high school, I was jealous of my friends who got their first cars at the ages of 16 and 17, while I was stuck catching rides with them.
In college, I had friends who were honor students, maintaining near-perfect grade point averages while juggling part-time jobs and extracurricular activities. I juggled similar commitments, but I did not make straight A’s most semesters.
The pressure I felt to do well took away some of the extra joy my college experience should have had. Comparison stole it.
I was too busy trying to keep up with the high-achievers to really focus on what was most important — the experiences that didn’t live inside of textbooks and the relationships I was building with those around me.
What if I had gone to that midnight movie premiere instead of studying into the wee hours of the morning? What if I had gone up to the Chilhowee campground area to see that late-night meteor shower an extra time? My grades might not have improved much, but I would’ve been further fostering my friendships.
Regardless of whether or not you believe in the Bible, it still offers a question worth considering. Matthew 16:26 says this:
“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”
What indeed? If college taught me anything, it was the importance of prioritizing. What if I had been a student with a 4.0 GPA but had forgotten to enjoy my college experience?
Everyone fails at some point in their lives. Things can and do happen that are unexpected. What’s left in the aftermath is whatever you had invested the most time and energy in, whatever your priorities had allowed you to consider important.
The most important thing that remains in your life when things have gone awry is whatever has the largest piece of your soul.
In order to not let comparison steal your joy, you need to make sure what brings joy to your soul is something worthwhile.
If you are working toward some kind of dream or goal and see someone else has reached it before you, the comparison can be discouraging. But the bottom line is that you have to focus on you and what you have done.
I once interviewed a woman who had lost more than 100 pounds after years of being overweight.
She said seeing all the strong, fit people at the gym could be intimidating. She told me the best weight-loss advice someone had ever given her was to focus on her own successes instead of those of others.
This lady decided she wasn’t letting big bodybuilding types steal her enthusiasm. Comparison hadn’t entered the picture, and what she saw when she looked at herself was joy.
But I have known others who have fallen victim to comparison.
When I got back to Cleveland from a semester of taking college classes in Washington, D.C., I ran into a friend I had known since we were just kids.
We exchanged the typical hellos and asked how the other was doing.
“So, you have your college degree now? That’s cool,” she said.
But the way she said it made the words stab me in the heart.
She sounded almost sad and couldn’t look me in the eye when she said the part about my graduation being cool. I knew her well enough to realize she had been comparing our experiences then. She had dropped out of college.
We went on to discuss other things, but the first parts of our conversation never left my mind. Comparison changed the way we related to each other. It stole some of the joy our conversation should have had.
Remember that other people’s successes don’t negate your own. It just means you can look at someone and see that what you want to do is possible. It’s very likely that you are only limited by what you think you can do.
If my friend reads this and still dreams of graduating from college, I would like to encourage her to pursue it again. I solemnly promise to cheer obnoxiously loud on graduation day.
I leave everyone else with this advice: Don’t let comparison steal your joy.
Your neighbors have a brand new car in their driveway. So what? Your co-worker got a promotion, and you didn’t. So what? It’s wedding season, and you’re still single. So what?
Comparing yourself to someone else does not make your life better. It often just makes you become unappreciative of whatever it is you do have.
There are things you have accomplished that are worth celebrating — even if your main accomplishment is something as simple as having never made the choice to smoke a cigarette.
You have other things going for you, too. You are a valuable member of your community. You’re different from everyone else around you because no two people are the same. You have a valuable story to tell and a voice that deserves to be heard.
That’s not just a greeting card pep talk, either. I mean it.
It’s great to want to work hard and get better at whatever it is you do, but do not let comparing your progress with others’ rule your life.
As Dr. Seuss said, “Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don't matter, and those who matter don't mind.”