Stay Out of the Comparison Gutter

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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

LaddersStaying 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.

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.

See Rebecca’s recommended Action Steps as we continue this article on our blog…. CLICK HERE

**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.

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