What is the most frustrating thing for you on your personal journey to success? Is it seeing someone else who has achieved great things and wondering how they got there? After all, they make it look so easy—they have a grip on every step, every trick, every nuance of their business, their life, their health.
Every day we are inundated with success stories, tales of people who made it big, whether it’s growing a multi-billion-dollar company from scratch, earning a couple of PhDs, finding the perfect soulmate and having an incredible family… There are hundreds of things we look at daily that can make us feel inadequate by comparison. They got lucky, we tell ourselves. They had it easier than we did. We didn’t have all the benefits, the privileges, the education that they had, so how could we possibly be expected to achieve these same things? The funny thing is, if you knew what was really going on behind the scenes of their lives, you wouldn’t want their life because it wouldn’t suit you.
In a world that prizes the 24-hour news cycle, the instant gratification of social media and the culture of “10 easy ways” to achieve a goal, we often fail to recognize our own achievements and successes. It is so simple to look at the social media profile of a distant acquaintance, see the face they present to the world and believe their hype. It is beyond simple to say, well, I’ll never achieve that. What you need to realize is, this is the default—this is how you’re going to react if you don’t train yourself to be smarter than that. You need to understand, deep down inside, what is presented as reality is rarely even close to the whole truth. Not understanding this is what crushes so many people’s goals and ambitions. You need to stop falling for that con.
There is constant pressure from society to be a certain way, look a certain way and act a certain way. For many, it feels like they don’t quite fit the box of this perceived success, which is why they haven’t achieved their goals. Trying to fit into a box that isn’t built for you is going to crush your success unless you start to see that box for what it is—something that isn’t designed to help you, but to hold you back from your potential.
Where the real failure lies, however, is not in not being good enough. It lies in allowing someone else’s success to overshadow and diminish our own. We cannot become another person, no matter how hard we try. Even if you try it’ll eventually fall completely apart because it’s all an act. You must be the person you were created to be. While you will never become someone else, you can model after them. Watch and practice their techniques, methods and success patterns. In the end, you may even get further along than your original role model did!
When you accept and embrace where you are in your life and on your journey, you discover your own potential and purpose. This will suit you considerably better than what you see when you look outward. Realize that just about everyone has someone who looks at them and imagines what it must be like to live such a successful life. That includes you; someone out there wishes they could emulate your successes. By continuing steadfastly down your own path, you have a much better chance of creating long-term success. Remember, much of what we see is just the sparks of the firework.
Obsessively comparing ourselves to others can so often cause us to get stuck, to give up when things become difficult or when there are obstacles in our way. I could never achieve those same things. I’m just not clever enough, lucky enough, or privileged enough. I don’t have the right connections. But what if we could use our natural human tendency to compare ourselves to others to our own advantage? What if we could be objective and draw inspiration from others’ success, instead of allowing that comparison to cripple us?
Growing up mediocre
When many of us were growing up, we were surrounded by adults who were either ignorant of the vast levels of success available to us or had an unfortunate victim mentality. Of course, parents and other people in our lives don’t realize they are imparting this ignorant way of thinking. People like us don’t achieve mega-success. We simply don’t have what it takes, and that’s just the way life is. Want to try out for the track team, but can’t run fast enough? Well, then, better accept you aren’t fast enough and move on. Can’t play tennis? Well, then you can’t play. Just move on. Give up that dream. It’s not worth the heartache.
Especially in the days before ESPN and YouTube, there really wasn’t an example to see how good someone could actually become—or how to get that way. When I was eight years old and kicking a ball around in the backyard, I just figured, hey, the other kids are better than me. That’s the way it will always be, so why bother. That’s until I got big enough to join the gym and start playing basketball. Nothing else to do all day but play basketball with bigger kids or take a break from that and play ping pong or shoot pool.
In a matter of months, I was getting good. Really good. Sure, I was limited by my own speed and height, but I could shoot a basketball like nobody’s business—so I did. My team played a high school that was eight times the size of ours, and we won. I kept right on playing and getting better and better until one day it occurred to me that this is how it’s done. Natural talent can only get you so far. Just because you start out being not quite as good as someone else, doesn’t mean you have to stay there. You don’t have to accept that “that’s just the way it is”.
My story is anything but unique. There are many highly successful people who will tell you that they came to a similar conclusion: That there’s nothing wrong with comparing your own current level of achievement with someone else’s, but that you shouldn’t use it as an excuse to give up, or allow that comparison to take away your capacity for self-belief.
What happens all too often is that obsessively comparing our own achievements to those of others causes us to develop envy. When we envy someone else’s achievements, it can prevent us from taking pleasure out of our own, which eventually leads to failure. But it does even more than that to us. Constantly comparing ourselves to others can reduce our own capacity for compassion, it can eradicate our sense of trust and it can even lead to anxiety and depression.
So where do we find that middle ground? How do we use the success of others to motivate ourselves and to teach ourselves to achieve success, without allowing those comparisons to destroy our own ambition and tenacity?
Comparing to achieve
There is a fine line between inspiration and envy. Inspiration is viewing someone else’s achievements, taking a page from their book and learning how to achieve your own success. Envy is allowing their success to be the reason you give up, as is accepting that they will just always be better. We all want personal, financial, career, family success, so we need to learn to focus on how to use that natural tendency to compare to our own best advantage.
Comparing and competing in a productive manner requires using those comparisons to measure your own progress. For me, when someone does something big that grabs my attention, I see it as something that’s really possible to achieve. Now, maybe you can’t be the greatest in the world, or maybe you can. But knowing that someone has come close to it and hope could pull you over that line. Think about Roger Bannister. It took seemingly forever before he famously broke the four-minute mile. But once he had done it, more and more people started doing it because they realized it could be done and that challenged them to run their best time ever.
The value of our goals can be established by comparing them to what has been achieved and imagining what more can be achieved. This is where our natural human competitive spirit comes in. If you are competing against the best, you can go beyond what others are doing once you realize that there’s always greater possibility and more you could achieve.
The best place to start is to focus on your own strengths. But what does that mean? Only develop the talents you’re good at? Not exactly. Of course it pays to develop your natural talents, but it also means using your character strengths to help you achieve what you want. Are you an especially positive person? Use that to drive yourself. Are you an early riser or a night owl? Do the bulk of your work at a time of day when you are at your sharpest and most likely to push through. Do you have the ability to sit and focus for several hours? Use that ability to get through all the work you need to do to get your degree, build your business or achieve your goals. And don’t worry if you’re not amazingly good at something right off the bat—that’s what hard work and practice is for—to get stronger and better.
Set goals that are meaningful to you. When you are working towards your own definition of success, rather than someone else’s, you are more likely to stick to your plan. Of course you can be inspired by the way someone else does something, but by changing your perspective, you come up with a plan that works for you. For example, it would be ridiculous, even harmful, to try and run 20 miles a day to get in shape, just because you heard that’s how an Olympic gold medalist does it. It would be time-consuming, and it could break down your body. And as for your goals, it could distract you from achieving the other things that are more important to you. By all means, take inspiration where it appeals to you. You can be inspired by the gold medalist’s routine, without allowing it to consume you.
Learn to recognize and celebrate your own victories and achievements. Success isn’t a single destination, it is a series of milestones along the way. If your goal is to write a best-selling novel, you don’t only have to celebrate once it reaches number one on the New York Times Best Sellers list. You can give yourself a pat on the back once you’ve successfully drafted the story outline, enjoy a celebration once the first draft is complete, take pride when you finalize the editing and have a publication-ready story. Enjoy your achievements along the way and, at every step, remind yourself that you have come a long way since the start and that you are making real substantial progress towards where you want to go.
When you celebrate your achievements your overall confidence starts to grow because you know you haven’t quit, your dream is still alive and you are still moving towards it with every single step. This tells you without a doubt that you are on track and making progress towards something truly important to you.
Feeling good about yourself and the actions you’re taking prevents the habit of running in circles, feeling constantly defeated. Now you don’t have to rely on a fleeting, happy feeling to kick you into motivation mode. Your motivation and confidence run so deep that anytime an obstacle threatens your progress, you’re able to bounce back. You become more resilient. With so many great things happening, the setbacks are less daunting.
Here are a few practical steps to help you stay on track to success and keep your goals clear:
- Track your progress: Whether you keep a journal, write a blog or plot your goals on a graph on a big whiteboard, write your goals down and keep track of your progress. From small steps to big milestones, keep a record of your accomplishments and keep a visual record of what you have achieved to inspire and motivate you.
- Serve your own needs: Ask yourself daily, “What am I going to do today that will get me closer to my goals?” Make sure that the steps you take and the goals you achieve are there to serve your own needs, and not someone else’s. Remember that even if you take inspiration by comparing your achievements to someone else’s, their journey wasn’t and never will be exactly like yours.
- Don’t be too hard on yourself: Things will go wrong. There will be failures along the way. Your journey may have to change course. This doesn’t mean you should quit or berate yourself. Don’t take pride in being your own worst enemy; you should be your biggest cheerleader. Take the time to be kind to yourself and accept that we all make mistakes. Rather than giving up, use these obstacles in the road as learning experiences and grow from them—figure out what you did wrong, or what circumstances changed, and work on strengthening your plans and resiliency.
- Treat the people around you with compassion and kindness (AKA, respect): You are not perfect. Your expectations of others should reflect compassion, and should recognize they are also not perfect. If someone is struggling, remember what that feels like, and ease up on your expectations of them versus piling on more. Share your wisdom and your knowledge, and help others achieve their own goals if you can. Remember that service to others is an achievement in itself. Someone else’s success doesn’t automatically mean your failure. Continually focus on the goals that are most meaningful to you rather than allowing yourself to be sidetracked.
Get excited about where you’re headed
By taking the time to focus on achieving the goals that are meaningful to you, rather than trying to achieve someone else’s goals, you are going to find yourself recharged, re-energized and excited about where you’re headed.
Comparing your own achievements to those of your friends, family, acquaintances or even heroes is normal and natural, but when you turn that around and allow yourself to use those as inspiration, rather than a cast-in-stone map that you must follow, you will stop feeling the pressure to achieve according to someone else’s standards. By setting your own goals and standards, you will enjoy your own achievements and success. You will better understand your own dreams, your own goals and the process you need to follow to achieve them.
Doing it your way
When you stop constantly comparing the way you do things and the goals you want to achieve to the achievements of another person, you will learn to trust your own instincts, intuition and experience. Follow your process one step at a time, in a way that plays to your own strengths and your own timeline.
It’s perfectly ok to use the achievements of another as inspiration. But, it helps to understand that constantly, obsessively focusing on someone else’s achievements and comparing them to your own causes you to become side-tracked and pursue goals that aren’t meaningful or necessary to your own success. Focus on what you can achieve and what you can do today that makes you more successful than yesterday. Then, go achieve your goals for yourself.
What other thoughts do you have about inspiration versus envy? How have you focused on your own goals, rather than trying to follow someone else’s path? Comment below with how you are being inspired by someone else’s success to achieve your own.