A friend and I have an old bad habit. We have several abandoned creative projects between us, and when we see a new TV show, movie or book that resembles one of those projects, we end up comparing the two. We point out all the flaws in the actual finished work to our unsullied ideas that were never executed.
“Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” (Photo by Christopher Michel)
A professor friend of mine, meeting with one of her students, realised he was grilling her. This student plans to go to grad school at Princeton, and he hinted that maybe she wasn’t well-educated enough to teach him. After all, he’s Ivy League material! He hasn’t actually been accepted into the Ivy League yet, but he already feels worried that some professor of mediocre pedigree might taint his future excellence. (My friend gently let him know where she got her doctorate, and he calmed down.)
In her novel Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill writes of a young man who joins a gathering of people 10 years older. He is “alert to any sign of compromise or dead-ending within us”. When he leaves, one of the adults says, “You are not allowed to compare your imagined accomplishments to our actual ones.”
Be careful not to think of your hopes and dreams as accomplishments. You know, in your heart of hearts, that you won’t get to do everything you hope to in life. But it’s hard to stop factoring your hopes for the future into your self-worth, instead of the things you’re actually getting done. Especially when you’re young, it’s tempting to think that, despite all evidence, you’ll be the one person to accomplish everything you set out to do in life. This is one of the more insidious effects of an overstuffed to-do list or unrealistic goals, and it can make you look pretentious and foolish.
Compare dreams to dreams, accomplishments to accomplishments. And in general, spend less time comparing yourself to others. Because you never really have the same perspective on someone else’s life as you do to yours. It’s such a basic mistake that it’s called the fundamental attribution error. The good news is it works both ways, and if you stop comparing your mental insides to everyone else’s outsides, you’ll probably end up a lot happier. Drop the pretensions of your imagined accomplishments – but drop your secret fears and worries too.