Dealing with Comparison: Untold Secrets of Impressive People

“I’m so anxious!” The nervous look on my sister-in-law’s face was a stark contrast from her typical confident and carefree expression.

She was about to leave town for London, where she would start the next chapter of her success story as a writer and filmmaker. The chapters before this one took place in New York where she had produced and starred in critically acclaimed plays that she wrote herself, started her own business as an event planner (the fancy events attended by fancy important people), while landing side gigs as an extra for little things like the latest John Wick movie and the Daredevil TV series.

“People say I look like I have it together, but honestly, I have no idea what I’m doing,” she said. She proceeded to talk about how she has exactly zero plans after her six months in London, and the uncertainty was getting to her.

It reminded me of my first year as a therapist fresh out of college. Though I hadn’t accomplished such prestigious endeavors, I identified with the feeling of launching into something that felt important to me, but where I felt I had no idea what I was doing. I felt like a college kid trying to hang with the professionals, and at any point, I would be discovered as an impostor, a fake.

Fortunately, I had a great supervisor who was used to working with newbie clinicians, and she had an open conversation with me about this issue of mine.

“Kalene,” she said, leaning in and lowering her voice as if to tell me something she’d never said out loud. “You know, none of us really know what we’re doing. …Nobody does.”

I paused, giving her a chance to laugh and say she was joking, everyone knows what they’re doing and everyone at that job is an expert except for me. But she didn’t do that. Instead, she went on: “I don’t know what I’m doing, the other managers here don’t know what they’re doing, all we do is our best, and we guess our way through. If something doesn’t work, we try something else.”

I remembered her words, but it still took years before I truly took this to heart. I didn’t actually believe her at the time, but it felt like it was worth keeping in the back of my mind. What ended up happening throughout my career was, while observing the highly experienced and skilled people around me at various job sites, I could recognize it. “Wow, that person is amazing, and, does not seem to know what they’re doing either!” Even as I became more confident myself, I never really lost the sense that I was generally shooting in the dark all the time. I’ve come to realize that all the impressive people that I compare myself to have some key things in common.

1. They never know what they’re doing, and they do it anyway.

My sister-in-law’s trip to London wasn’t the only time she felt lost. “I’ve never known what I’m doing! My parents are always worried about me. They say, ‘You just leap off edges!!'”

This was how she did things. Doing while not knowing was the reason she had accomplished so much. She never stopped too long to wait until she was completely certain of how things would go, she never waited until she was bulletproof before she took a risk. She just took it. And she accepted that not knowing was part of the game.

2. They are driven by the things they value in life.

There’s an excerpt from Brene Brown’s book, Daring Greatly, in which she describes giving herself a pep talk before walking onstage to perform her TED talk: “What’s worth doing even if I fail?”

If you read the paragraphs before this and thought, “Well, how do these people get themselves to ‘do it anyway’? Where do they gather the courage and motivation to take those risks?” Here it is: They are clear on what their values are, clear on what’s important in life to them, and they focus on that in their greatest moments of doubt. The doubts don’t disappear, but as long as they’re doing something that they believe could open a door that will bring them closer to the life they want, then it’s worth it, even if they fail.

3. They fear failure, too. But they also seek it.

My husband’s line of work has a very different culture than mine. He’s in the tech field. The fast-paced Silicon Valley style culture. In that world, they have a motto: ‘Fail fast.’

Failure never feels good, and our brains are wired to protect us from potential failure. Failure hits us at a very personal level because our brain perceives failure as a threat to our very existence, so it pulls all the stops to make sure you fear and avoid it. This may have been true if your goal was to defeat a lion in front of you. You fail, you die. A likely motto for our early ancestors. But not a very adaptive one for this day and age.

Failing fast means you discover mistakes and flaws fast, meaning you try alternatives fast, and you discover what actually works, fast. As my former supervisor said, if something doesn’t work, you try something else. High achievers in the tech world, and beyond, have accomplished amazing things by ‘pursuing’ failure, all while toting a human brain that’s built to fear it.

Anxious girl comparing herself to a successful person who secretly also has fears

What is it that you’re postponing until you feel certain that you know what you’re doing and what to expect? What is worth doing even if you fail? What growth could you gain from failing at an attempt to reach your goals?

If you’re comparing yourself to some kind of ideal (an impressive person you know in your life, a celebrity, or an ideal version of yourself) does this lead to believing that you “should” be more certain, and immune to failure–and the fear of it? My sister-in-law’s nervous look and her confident, carefree facial expression belong to the same person. Be kind to yourself, and remember that the person you’re comparing yourself to is just as human as you are.

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