I saw this quote on Instagram today:
You need to ignore what everyone else is doing and achieving. Your life is about breaking your own limits and outgrowing yourself to live YOUR best life. You are not in competition with anyone else; plan to outdo your past, not other people.
Aside from being cliche and kind of wordy, this advice seems pretty solid. There’s certainly a lot of suffering to be had by stacking your accomplishments against the people you admire. After all, we admire people largely for having qualities we don’t have. So a certain feeling of incompetence is inevitable so long as you’re judging your ability against another’s.
But ultimately I see no difference whatsoever between comparing yourself to other people vs. comparing yourself to your former self. Both of these mental constructs, birthed into existence by your own thinking mind, are equally obscure to the present frame of consciousness you find yourself inhabiting.
That’s a bit of a mouth-full, so allow me to unpack that idea.
I often fall victim to this comparison fallacy while I’m putting up numbers in the gym. I used to deadlift a lot more than this, I think to myself. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to get twice as strong as I once was.
But human beings do not exist in a vacuum. There’s a multitude of forces acting on us at all times that can affect any conceivable outcome we have the intention to measure. Your external reality is a chaos of causal factors acting on you from the outside in, while the same is true about your brain, working from the inside out.
I like to think I built a strong deadlift by being disciplined, focused and reflective about what works regarding strength training, and what doesn’t. But speaking honestly, I have absolutely no idea why I was able to get so strong then, yet I’m struggling to improve now. That former self was acting in a sea of variables, many of which are completely different from the ones I’m acting in now. How can I have any conviction about what absolutely works and what absolutely doesn’t?
So whether I’m looking at how many plates are on the bar compared to the former me, or compared to the guy deadlifting beside me makes no difference whatsoever. Both of these “selves” are not this immediate moment, and this immediate moment happens to be the only thing I can truly know exists. It’s also the only thing I can identify with.
So what’s the alternative then? Give up on trying to improve yourself?
That’s exactly what I’m saying.
Consider me in this moment. I find myself standing over the barbell. What possible use do I have for thinking about the former me that used to stand over the same barbell with more weight on it? That self does not exist. For that matter, this self does not exist. All that stuff about focus and discipline and intelligent reflection–these are just concepts I attach to. So what really matters in this moment then? Well, I see a loaded bar, and I know what I do with that. Deadlift it.
What I mean to say is, instead of creating all these objects of comparison, just do the thing. Whatever that thing is. Realistically, you’ll naturally get better at whatever you focus on. But when the universe presents a snag, don’t let your mind take over, dividing your self into two: the one you were and the one you are now. It’s no less damaging than comparing yourself to others.