Is comparison always wrong? Or, conversely, is comparison always useful?
I’m a firm believer that universal quantifiers are usually wrong. So short answer, no to both of the above questions. For this post, I want to look at ways comparison is useful and healthy–and when comparison should be avoided.
The first section talks about how to frame comparison in a way that uses learning to drive growth. This type of comparison is healthy, asks useful, practical questions, and lets the comparison go if there is no application.
The second section discusses when comparison becomes about determining worth or is understood in terms of a zero-sum game. This unhealthy type of comparison does not motivate growth, and is likely to result in envy, anger, pride, and stagnation or despair.
The conclusion briefly reiterates in a quick list what makes comparison healthy or unhealthy.
Healthy Comparison: It’s About Learning
Sometimes, comparison can be healthy! Some of you might be reeling in shock right now, but let me explain.
I’m going to focus on writer/author examples, but the idea extends to other creative endeavors as well.
Sometimes, we need comparison so we can improve.
Say, for example, you read a book. You love it, it’s amazing, a new favorite. It is perfectly acceptable to then ask yourself–why did I love it so much? What worked well, and why did it work so well? How can I achieve the same emotional response that book gave me in my own writing?
These are learning questions. They’re what makes comparison healthy! It’s looking at something else, maybe seeing, “this is better than mine for some reason,” and then–and here is the important part–instead of feeling down about it, exploring why you think that book is better than your work-in-progress (WIP). If you can find something actionable, great! Go and apply that.
If the book made it difficult to stop reading–why? How did the author achieve that pacing? Was it shorter chapters? The way chapters ended? The timeframe the book took place in? The stakes? The way the character’s motivation drove them? Figure out if there is something you learned that you can apply. This is constructive comparison.
What if you can’t discern a way to incorporate storytelling techniques from that book into your WIP? That’s okay. Just let the book inspire you keep learning and working hard on your craft–then let the comparison go.
(This can also be done in reverse. Hated a book? Why? What went wrong? What can you avoid doing? Or what didn’t that book do that you can do?)
Or maybe it’s not the product itself you’re comparing. What about success? We shouldn’t compare success, right? Actually…
There is a healthy way to compare success, too. If you notice that Cool Author launched their book and had 40 reviews by the end of the week, and yours had like…two…you don’t have to be discouraged. You think about: what did Cool Author do that I can try? What launch strategies did they use? Can I do that with my next launch? If Snazzy Author has a big social media following, and you want that, can you see if there are things they are doing you can try in your own style and brand? What types on content or questions are they getting responses to? How do you see them interacting with their followers? Can you do something similar?
NB: Some of those questions will be more useful if it’s an author with a similar target audience. If you see that IG Influencer gets lots of shares on their recipe videos, posting recipes videos on your IGTV likely isn’t going to help you connect with readers of spy thrillers. (Not to say you can’t share your lunch! You can! But don’t switch the focus of your content just to copy someone else.)
But maybe what you learn is not to make recipe videos, but to post videos of yourself (or just text posts) sharing something you enjoy and are passionate about that intersects with your readers’ interests.
Once again, this type of healthy comparison is about constructive learning. It inspires you.
Maybe sometimes you don’t find something practical to try. Comparison can help motivate you, too. “I have my own book baby out, and it’s toddling, but I see Prolific Author with their fifteen books all sprinting away.” This kind of comparison can be framed as, “Prolific Author has written so much! They pour a lot of energy into writing and marketing their books. I’m going to use this to remind myself to keep writing and chasing my dreams.”
The point of healthy comparison is not to copy, but to learn and grow. Healthy comparison motivates you to continue to work on your craft. Healthy comparison says, “they did really well on that… I’m going to try, too.”
Writing (and life, really) is about constantly learning and growing. We can’t learn if we don’t look up from our own work. Watching and learning and experimenting is healthy. Using other’s success to motivate and inspire our own journey can be helpful.
But, once again…if you can’t find a way to learn from and apply what you learned from the comparison–stop comparing.
Unhealthy Comparison: It’s About Worth
The problem with comparison comes when the comparison is no longer about learning or growing, but about determining your worth.
Where healthy comparison asks learning questions, such as “why did that work, and how can I try it,” unhealthy comparison asks worth questions: “Why can’t people love my book as much as that one? How come Cool Author is so loved? Prolific Author wrote three books in the time I wrote 3/4 of a book. Am I not as a good?“
Healthy comparison inspires growth. Unhealthy comparison results in stagnation, self-doubt, fear, and defeat. It looks like envy: “I wish I had as many reviews as Cool Author.” It looks like anger: “It’s not fair that my process takes longer.” It looks like self-hatred: “I’ll never be as good a writer as NYT Bestselling Author. I am a horrible writer.” It looks like giving up: “I might as well not even try.” It can also look like pride: “At least I’m not so terrible as them. I have more followers than him; I’m clearly superior.” This type of comparison typically mires you in discouragement–or sometimes in self-satisfied superiority that prevents you from reaching your true potential.
THIS is when it’s important to “keep your eyes on your own paper.” You cannot find your worth in comparison.
Let me repeat that: You cannot find your worth in comparison.
Finding your worth in comparison will be a constant rollercoaster. Elation when you surpass Cool Author in number of reviews. Discouragement when Prolific Author publishes yet another book and you’re still working on yours. Giddiness when you feel you did something better. Frustrated despair when they get the publishing deal, not you.
There are some things that are not meant to be compared, for example, an individual’s writing process. You can certainly listen to how others authors work, and even try what they do. But if one person’s method doesn’t work for you: that is okay. You are not a better or worse writer because you write slowly or quickly. Your different style from Some Author is not superior or inferior: it’s just different.
If comparison tempts you into a negative headspace or discouragement, stop comparing.
Now, you might be wondering, “where then do I find my worth?” The short answer is: its intrinsic to you as a human, and to your work as something that you poured labor and love into.
Unhealthy comparison is often also a symptom of a deeper problem: viewing writing/publishing (and life) as a zero-sum game. This is a term used to describe a system where Person A getting a resource means that Person B cannot get that resource without taking it from Person A. If you view success as zero-sum game, you will think that Cool Author’s success is the same as your failure.
Creative friends: that is not how writing and publishing works. Yes, Author A getting a contract with a publishing house does mean that someone else will not get that spot. But that does not equal your failure. It does not mean you will never be published. And an author getting lots of sales? Reviews? Followers? None of that takes away from your sales, reviews, or followers. There is room for more than one person to succeed.
Comparison in the mindset of a zero-sum economy of success is toxic. When you stop viewing writing as a zero-sum game, you stop seeing another’s success as your failure (and you stop taking joy from another person’s failure). Instead, you will find it easier to cheer for other’s success.
Healthy comparison, then:
1) Does not base your sense of worth or value in the comparison. (You and your book are not more or less valuable dependent on a relative scale of comparison.)
2) Is driven by learning to motivate growth. (How can I learn from this and improve?)
3) Knows that there is room for everyone. (Someone else’s success does not equal your failure.)
Comparison has become unhealthy and should be stopped when:
1) You let it determine you or your book’s value.
2) It does not inspire learning or growth.
3) It traps you in negative emotions and toxic responses to other’s success or failure.
I hope this post helped you think about when and when not to compare and how to self-evaluate if you are truly using comparison in a healthy or unhealthy way. I hope it encourages you to to separate your sense of worth and identity from a sliding scale of comparison.