Many of us want to be successful. The only thing greater than our ambition is our fear of failure.
Perhaps ironically, the real enemy to true success often drives both our ambition and our fear. This enemy is comparison.
I’d love to tell you I am unmoved by the emphasis on success in our world, but I would only be lying. Too often, I’m seduced into looking over my shoulder to see who is behind me and how fast they are gaining, while, at the same time, looking ahead to see who I will pass next.
It’s running on a mental and emotional hamster wheel. All it does it tire me out while getting me nowhere. The days when I am on the hamster wheel, I am not listening to the right voices. But it’s easy to hop on amid the constant, subtle competition and comparison found in everyday life.
Comparison Is Everywhere
A friend of mine recently lamented how competitive being a parent has become. Yes, you read that correctly: parenting can be competitive.
She said, “Before you have a baby people ask, ‘Home birth or at the hospital?’ Depending on your answer, you are met with affirmation or condescension, like you’re wrong if you don’t do what they do.
“Then your baby is born and the questions keep coming, ‘Disposable or reusable diapers? Stay-at-home parent or pre-school?’” She continued, “What school you send your kid to, or what school accepts them, has become a new standard. Isn’t it amazing how competitive parenting has become?”
Parenting should be about loving your child well, teaching them to be strong, helping navigate relationships, crying over a scratched knee or a broken heart, celebrating with them and cheering for them, modeling integrity and pointing them in an honorable direction as they enter adulthood.
The problem comes when, in addition to this list, we compare ourselves to others as the standard for how well we parent.
This happens in many areas of life. We’ve exchanged contentment for comparison and self-acceptance for competition. Think about how we receive the comments of others. How did you feel the last time you heard someone unfairly critique another? Another way to ask this is, “What was your response the last time you were in the presence of a person who gossiped about someone else?” Be honest.
As for me, there have been times when I add to the critique to show how far down the road I really am. Moments when I internalize the negative commentary and do all I can not to be like that when my turn comes. The worst is when I feel shame or embarrassment because I know I am much like the person being critiqued.
Comparison vs. Truth
All of these responses are rooted in comparing myself to someone else, and not believing the truth of who I am. I am not alone. I frequently meet people who have lost the vision to see the truth of who they really are, and have been blinded by the disease of comparison and competition.
It happens in our jobs, in our relationships, in our physical health (think physique) and in life. We listen to others tell us what we should and should not be. This comes from friends, bosses, magazines, television programs and co-workers. These voices play loud in the ears of our heart and encourage comparison. They teach us not to look at our true self, but to look at others only to see all the things we are not.
I recently sat with a young man who is waking up to the futility of climbing the corporate ladder. He said, “I’ve let my boss determine my future and it’s empty.”
Like many of us, he is learning that winning, success and achievement are often unfulfilling. Yet, when he speaks about his wife and his son he relaxes, his voice takes on a kinder tone and his speaks with a smile. “All I want is to love and care for my family.” This causes me to wonder what we really want.
What We Really Want
I bet what we really want is more than making a lot of money or acquiring degrees from prestigious universities or getting really ripped. But that is often what we give much of our time and attention to.
In my experience, what we really want is to love others and be loved by others. We long to live in true freedom and walk with gentle fearlessness. We want to spend our time doing things that give us life and energy, and by doing those things, give others life and energy too. At the end of our lives, we want to know the world is a little poorer because we are gone.
What is interesting about this is comparison and competition are precisely what stand in opposition to the things we really want. Because when we keep our eyes on the accomplishments of others, we can easily be lured away to pursue things we really don’t want.
So, what if we defined success based on the truth of who we are in all our glory and brokenness? What if we stopped competing and comparing and committed to bring our whole self into honest, deep relationships? What if we no longer played a part defined by someone else, but ruthlessly pursued emotional and spiritual health? What if failure was not about our inability to keep up with others, but meant a life devoid of serving others or a life lived without love?
Maybe the question we should ask is, “How would my life have to change for me to achieve the things I deeply, truly want in this world?” Perhaps, the answer is to look within to see the truth of who we are. In finding the courage to accept ourselves as the magnificent sons and daughters of God we were created to be. For in that, we will see that God has given you and me everything we need to be the person we have always wanted to be.