The writing community talks a lot about Imposter Syndrome, and rightfully so, but today I want to talk about its cousin, Comparison. Because I do think the two are related, and maybe one day I’ll unpack that, but for now I’m going to focus on comparison, because that’s the thing I think about more often.
I’ve found myself guilty of comparison in all sorts of ways. When I was younger it had to do with grades and athletics. Then it was about what sort of jobs my friends were getting and what milestones we were hitting. I’ve worked a lot on reframing how I see those events, and, on the whole, don’t fall into those negative traps about comparing my life to others. At least, not as much.
Now? Now it’s more about writing.
Sometimes, when I compared myself to others, I came out ahead. And sometimes I fell far behind. The thing is, there is no actual metric for comparing your life against someone else’s. Everyone lives different lives, has different privileges, abilities, etc. Which I know. We are individuals with different identities and challenges and perspectives and that’s important.
Even being aware of how easy it is to fall into the negative aspect of comparison, I still do it. In the past, I caught myself fixating on an I’ve Got an Agent! announcement that seemed to have materialized in the time it took me to send a dozen queries. I’ve noticed when a friend has drafted an entire book in the time I’ve been puzzling out a plot point. If you look, there are hundreds of things you could judge against, it’s just a matter of keeping yourself from doing it. There’s always going to be someone who’s at a benchmark ahead of you. Probably a lot of someones! Publishing is slow until it isn’t, and there are always exceptions.
I think, in terms of writing, comparison can be good when used as a tool of unity. Finding the traits that make us like, that bring us together to celebrate, motivate, or commiserate, is good. When you can say, “Oh, I’ve had a similar experience, here’s what I’ve learned…” it can be great. We do it on purpose, too, when we ask clients about their experience with an agent or publisher, or talk about the advantages and disadvantages of large vs. small. vs. indie presses vs. self-publishing. When we use our commonalities to educate and uplift one another, it can be an immensely helpful tool.
It’s when we use that comparison to distance ourselves, to find the ways in which we believe others to be better than us (or ourselves better than them), that’s the pitfall. And this is without delving into all of the ways that race, class, education, ability, and other marginalizations affect our careers.
I once told my dad that I wanted to live my life in a way that would make the people I went to high school with envious, but I that’s not true anymore. Now, I try to live and work doing what I believe will make me happy, will make me proud to talk about, and will, if not do the most good, then inflict the least harm.
It’s when I find those things that make me happy that I think comparison works. When I find the ways my peers in the writing community are succeeding, are flying past milestones I can’t wait to reach or worked so hard to reach myself, are showing me the path and holding torches that light the way, that comparison can be good.
Comparison isn’t inherently bad, but when we don’t pay attention to what we’re fixating on, or how it’s making us (and others!) feel, it can be. Use it as a motivator, use it to take stock of what you’re happy with in your life and what you want to change, but don’t use it to hurt yourself or anyone else.