Happy Wednesday and welcome to another issue of Long Way Home🏡, where I explore topics of creativity, emotional intelligence, and happiness.
For my 27th issue, as my 27th birthday nears, I tackle a topic that many young professionals know extremely well: comparing ourselves to other people. In the essay, I expand on one strategy I use when I’m irresponsible with my feelings and engage in harmful comparisons. I hope that you’re able to find half as much value from it as I do.
In this week's LWH🏡:
💫 - How to Win the Comparison Game by Vandan Jhaveri
🎙- Marina Nitze: “If You Googled ‘Business Efficiency Consultant,’ I Was the Only Result.” on People I (Mostly) Admire by Steven Levitt (Freakonomics Radio)
🎥 - 10 Levels of Slight of Hand by Daniel Roy
📃 - A Long Year by John Semley
Let's get into this week's topic.
How to Win the Comparison Game
The Pistol Fires
We don't know who fires the pistol, all we know is that we're in the race. No instructions are needed, the rules are in our DNA. We are playing the Comparison Game.
No matter what we're thinking of, we can generally find somebody in our life who is better or more put-together than we are. We can think of someone who has better grades, a different person who has a cooler-sounding job, and someone who seems to have a more fun relationship. We can think of somebody who is better at our favourite instrument and our favourite sport. We can think of somebody who knows more about our favourite thing. We can even think of somebody whose parents love them more than our parents seem to love us.
In an airbrushed world shaped by Instagram and advertising, we are also constantly comparing the way we look to some conditioned ideal. It's only natural to feel deflated. But I think that with a simple reminder, we can break out of the Comparison Game once and for all.
The Opportunity Cost of Excellence
Over the course of our lives, we prioritize the development of some skills over others. We tend to get good at those things, sometimes doubling down at an early age. At some point, natural inclination begins to matter less and less, and the most important metric to evaluate our skill level is the time and effort spent on deliberate practice.
Because of conscious deliberate practice, most of us have cultivated skills (even if we don’t know it) that we can perform better than 85% or more of the general population. . These skills are what can be called our primary skills. Oftentimes, primary skills are leveraged in our professional lives and are thought to be our most marketable traits.
Through natural curiosity, we might dabble in other realms, developing other skills. These skills might be completely unrelated or directly adjacent to our primary skills, but because we haven't spent nearly as long developing them, we are not nearly as good at them. These are our secondary or tertiary skills. We might be slightly above average at these skills, but certainly not the best we know.
Developing primary, secondary, or tertiary skills, for vocation or for interest, requires long-term, intentional care. Given the finite nature of our time and energy, this guarantees that there are other aspects of our life that will not be paid as much attention. This imbalance guarantees that there will be aspects of our lives intentionally or unintentionally overlooked. In other words, as with everything, there is an opportunity cost to becoming excellent.
Putting in 80-hour weeks means that we are not able to give a comparable amount of time to cultivating trust, intimacy, and comfort in our relationship with our partner. Practicing violin five hours per day on top of school means that we’re not going to have much time to socialize with peers. Focusing on being a present, engaged parent means that we're not going to be able to make quick progress towards our fitness goals.
As skills get more specialized and people are asked to perform at higher and higher levels, there is even more branching. The world's best 100m sprinters aren't even the world's best 400m sprinters, despite plenty of overlap between those competencies.. Of course, Olympian runners are leagues better than the average person, but at that high level, there are tweaks to the training regimens for separate competitors to optimize for those extra 300 metres. What seems like a common primary skill branches as specificity and skill level increase.
And neither of those Olympians have had a chance to read Nietzsche.
Failing by Comparison
When we compare our secondary or tertiary skills with someone else’s primary skills (e.g., our mediocre presentation skills with someone else’s phenomenal presentation skills), we feel hopeless. We feel like the gap between our skill levels is insurmountable. We forget about the sheer amount of time and effort necessary to develop a primary skill and we foolishly believe that our haphazard approach should have won us the same results as other people’s intentional, long-term efforts. This leaves only one explanation for the gap: our natural, immutable limitations.
As logic crumbles, so does our sense of self-confidence and self-esteem. We feel inferior. Those of us aware enough to recognize that there is a difference in effort expended scramble to reprioritize our resources to develop said skill, ignoring that before, those resources were spent developing our own primary skills—the foundation of our own hard-earned success.
Over time, we might lose our competitive edge, opting instead for a collection of half-baked skills inspired more by comparison and feelings of inferiority than genuine curiosity and a will to be masterful.
Interestingly, when we compare our primary skills with someone else’s primary skills (e.g., our phenomenal guitar skills with someone else’s phenomenal guitar skills), we generally don't feel hopelessness, but inspiration. Because we have put conscious effort into developing the skill, we are able to develop informed, nuanced opinions about someone else’s skill. We have an entirely new sense of empathy. Suddenly, we aren't the disgruntled onlookers, shaking our fists at the unfairness of the world, but peers sharing notes and comparing battle scars.
We try to optimize for all the most impressive skills and the best sounding parts of people's lives, but we forget that nobody has a life optimized for everything. Despite our most ardent efforts, we will not either. Trying to optimize for everything a recipe for misery and exhaustion.
The weight of everyone else's very specific excellence, however, certainly makes us feel bad about the entirety of ourselves. There always seems to be somebody to look to when we are looking for a good reason to feel subpar. But all the people that I admire the most have some embarrassing facet of their life in which they have performed abysmally, be it family or romantic relationships, managing their professions, or cultivating interesting personalities.
Remembering that everybody has their own collection of traits that they have poured their energy and time into developing ejects us from the Comparison Game. Nobody on earth has spent their time developing the exact same mix of skills and proficiencies that we have, giving us a uniqueness that is hard to validly compare.
If we are praising others for their abilities, we can’t forget to extend that same ovation to ourselves. The way we have spent our years hasn’t been entirely wasteful or pointless. Our primary skills deserve just as much attention.
In an endlessly competitive world, feeling adequate is protest. And protest, we must.
Marina Nitze is one of those people that seems to have their life totally figured out at a young age. Very early on, she establishes marketable skills, find a job with massive impact, and is smart enough to figure out how to get what she wants in enormous, bureaucratic, change-resistant organizations like government.
A recent meditation of mine is the concept of agency and where I feel high or low agency. Marina's story is characterized by extreme agency. She is the architect of her own life in every sense of the world. Her life motto is a Lily Tomlin classic:
I was always someone who wondered why somebody didn't do something about that. Then I realized I'm somebody.
Creating the reality we want to see is a power that we easily forget about. Marina's life story was inspiring and motivating in an entirely new way.
Shout out to Padmanie for the recommendation.
🎥 - Duped
After last week's Penn and Teller video, I've been watching a lot of magic videos on YouTube. I forgot how fun magic could be and how much the performer's personality and sense of humour matters in the overall performance.
I came across this video where Daniel shows 10 levels of slight of hand. Sometimes he tells you what he's doing before he does it, and other times he doesn't. I've watched the video a few times and still don't really understand how is able to do half of what he does. All I know is that the years of practice are apparent.
...at least, that's what I thought before I clicked the link. A publication that I follow is called The Local, and they highlight stories of everyday people right here in Toronto. The hyper-local focus feels warm and comforting in the loud, crowded expanse of the internet.
Their Spring 2021 (Issue #9) compiled a variety of stories detailing a year in this city. My first reaction was "More essays about COVID? What else is there to say?" Then I clicked an essay at random, and the first line had hooked:
Béla Tarr’s 439-minute film Sátántangó (1994) opens with a seven-and-a-half-minute shot of some cows lingering in the mucky pasture of a busted farm somewhere in rural Hungary.
As a general rule, if I learn about something new within the first sentence of the piece, I'll read it to the end. And I'm glad I did. Semley's piece drew interesting parallels between intentionally long works of art and our experience of the pandemic for the past 12 months.