The Comparison Trap

Last week I talked about doubt and the writer. It’s one of those mental obstacles we have to overcome if we’re going to get anywhere in this game.
Here’s another one: the comparison trap.
It’s almost automatic that we writers look at who is on the rungs above us and, in doing so, stay constantly anxious about our own position. Noxious things start popping into the mind: Hey, I’m a better writer than he is. How come he’s selling so much better than me? And what about that guy? He was nothing a few years ago when I taught at a conference. Where does he get off getting that advance? And then, of course, there’s THAT one, the legend, the guy I admire most, the guy I wanted to be like, and it’s pretty clear I’ll never reach his level . . .
And so it goes. A certain amount of this you might chalk up to the competitive urge, which is not, per se, unhealthy. We need a little of that warrior in us. But if you let it fester you’ll be cooked. You’ll start looking and acting like Ebenezer Scrooge in the first act of A Christmas Carol.

I thought of the comparison trap the other day when I read a story about American tennis star Andy Roddick. Ten years ago, this teenage phenom shot to #1 in the world after winning the U.S. Open. Here, it was assumed, was the next great superstar in the game, the new Connors, McEnroe, Agassi or Sampras.
There was just one problem, and his name was Roger Federer. The Swiss superstar came out of nowhere and proceeded to own Andy Roddick. They’ve met 22 times. Federer has won 20 of those matches. Federer has gone on to win a record 16 Grand Slam titles. Roddick is still looking for his second.
Now 28, Roddick’s best tennis may be behind him (aren’t you glad your writing prime isn’t based on athleticism?) He could look back and think that Federer’s record might have been his.
But he’s also accomplished more than most tennis players ever will. He’s won several non-Slam titles, made it to #1 in the world, has a great Davis Cup record, he’s rich and famous, married a model, and has a lifetime ahead as an ambassador for tennis. That doesn’t exactly suck.
Here’s something I tweeted that drew a lot of comments:
Comparison is death to a writer. Don’t look up or down. Look at the page in front of you and nail it.
Every day I can look at another writer’s career or recent success and get bent. Or I can be grateful for the career I have and keep doing what I do, which is write and try to do it better every time out.
There’s something tremendously satisfying about that. I refuse to compare myself to others. Twenty years ago, unpublished, if I’d been shown my present career in a crystal ball I would have said Yes! Let me have that!
Gratitude is the great secret to happiness. Be content with what you have. You’re unpublished? Be grateful you have the ability to learn the craft. Be grateful for new opportunities in the e-world. Your critique group getting you down? Be grateful for the people in your life who love you. Dogs and cats count, too.
And take a tip from Andy Roddick. “You keep moving forward until you decide to stop,” he said recently. “At this point I’ve not decided to stop, so I’ll keep moving forward.”
So what about you? Do you find yourself prone to the comparison trap? 

16 thoughts on “The Comparison Trap

  1. Sometimes I can go for a while without making comparisons. Other times it’s a plague.

    The tennis example is a good analogy. I used to love to watch tennis during the Stefan Edberg and Andre Agassi years. During those years, Agassi and Sampras were constantly compared to each other and it drove me nuts. They were like night and day as people and as players.

    It would serve us well to remember that as writers too. We each may be reaching for that goal of publication, but we all bring something different to the table.

    BK Jackson

  2. Great thought provoking post, Jim. I’ve always thought that any of us who write, whether we are published or not, have a common foe–those who don’t read much. I figured it was my job to write the best book I could to open a reader’s mind to a new author and promote literacy. Reading has brought such joy to my life and writing helped me discover me all over again. So I’ve never felt that I was in competition with anyone else. I’m thrilled when authors find mega success because that means they’re turning new readers on and that’s exciting.

    I also agree with BK. The way we write, filtering our stories through our own life’s experiences means that we indeed bring something unique to the table. And that’s a great thing.

  3. Great post, Jim. I learned a long time ago to never begrudge a fellow writer for his or her success. Beyond the writing itself, there are too many things to consider that are totally beyond our control.

    The sports analogy is a good way to look at it. I think of it more as playing golf. You’re part of a foursome but you are the only one hitting your ball. The guy in the cart next to you might have a better score, but you have nothing to do with it. You’re only responsible for your swing, your mental state, your game.

    With writing, it still boils down to your words on the page. Write the best book you can and hope for a measure of good luck.

  4. I’ve become most happy as a writer when I finally grasped the concept of not worrying about things I can’t control. I can’t really control my own success; the success of others is clearly out of range. So I don’t worry about it. It is what it is.

  5. Excellent blog per usual, Jim. Envy can destructive regardless of what field you’re talking about. It all too often leads to what people in Louisiana refer to as the “crab in the barrel” syndrome: as soon as one crab looks like it’s going to crawl out, the rest get together to pull it back down.

    Anyway, great post. I’m going to send it to some folks who need it.

  6. I’ve been lucky here at Kill Zone and with several other authors I’ve had the opportunity to get info or advice from. Of all the areas I’ve ever worked in, the level and quality of people helping people has been greatest in writing. Maybe it’s because we’re such solo warriors we’re willing to help others past the rough spots. I don’t know. But a wise author (Lani-Diane Rich/Lucy March) once said “You have to own your own greatness, my greatness doesn’t impinge upon your greatness. There is room for everyone.” I like that we love what we do so much that we are all willing to help each other make it better. Thanks Kill Zone Authors

  7. Chaco, thanks for the good word. My blogmates and I really appreciate that, as we truly do wish to help authors, as we were helped along the way.

    And you’re right. This is not a “zero sum game.” Our success or “greatness” does not depend on someone else failing or taking someone’s “spot.”

  8. I struggle with this a bit since being published. I want to know that I’m “good enough.” But on some level I know that’s true. I just have to focus on developing my game and striving for personal best. That’s more fun anyway.

    Great post Jim. It’s great to have reminders like this so we don’t get stuck in that trap. And Joe, I loved the visual of the “crab in the barrel” syndrome. I didn’t know that crabs did that. πŸ™‚ I’ll have to refer to that in a future post on my blog. πŸ™‚

  9. Ha, Mike! To quote Dirty Harry Callahan, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

    But truly, there’s an odd disconnect when we compare ourselves, or just think about someone being better. For example, I look at Stephen King in wonder sometimes at how good his best work is. Yet I realize that if I couldn’t do that, HE couldn’t do my stuff, either. Not that mine is “better” but it’s singularly MINE. My voice, for whatever it’s worth — and I think it’s worth something.

  10. Now you’re talking, Jim. It’s your own voice that makes you unique. And you’re right. Stephen King or James Patterson couldn’t do what you (or I) do. This is all quite apart from sales data and all that kind of thing. King’s a great writer, no doubt about it, but he’s got his own voice and it’s useless to brood over it.

  11. I have gone through the comparison game with writing and with painting (my ‘day job’).

    After years trying to learn the craft of painting, I realized there is only one person with the unique combination of life experience, inborn talent, acquired skill, determination, and discipline that I possess. Me.

    Although I began walking the writing road a lot more recently, I’ve tried to put realizations gained through art into effect in writing.

    That’s not to say I’m always successful. I’m not. I am, after all, human!

    But it does keep things on a more even keel and reminds me my only real competition is myself (am I a better writer today than I was yesterday?) and that blank page.

  12. Sometimes I am tempted to compare myself with others, but then I start to feel it is not a fair comparison for those poor souls. It’s not because I am better than them at writing, but because I am better than them at being me, a fate not easily withstood by the unwitting or the unprepared. It would be too much to inflict multiples of me on this world, therefore I stand in singularity.

    Now…if I could just get someone to buy my books so I can make money at this thing like those other guys do.

  13. Nope, James! I’m happy to say I don’t compare. What I say when I see another’s unmitigated success?? “Ahh, it is possible! Can’t wait til it’s my turn!”

  14. Wow! Great post! I definitely needed to read that this morning. It gives me the push I need to keep going and write, do my best and forget the rest! And other cliches…

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