Comparing ourselves to other people

One idea that has cropped up a couple of times as part of completing a course at Makers Academy is that of comparing ourselves to other people. At a group retrospective a week ago, we all took turns to list our observations and feelings about the course, and many people listed the fact that they had found themselves measuring their own performance against that of other students taking the course. This mostly took one of the following forms:

  • Other students are visibly taking on the weekend before I have even started
  • Other students seem to work more quickly than me
  • Other people seem more prepared and knowledgeable than me.

I have felt all of these things at times over the last four weeks. While this kind of comparison can be useful, it also comes with shortcomings, such as a skewed supply of information about other people and ourselves, and the risk of causing demoralisation. I’ll discuss these problems below, as well as some of the best methods I have found to mitigate them.

Our perspectives of other people and ourselves

There is some benefit to be had from comparing ourselves to people who are similar to us and in a similar position to us, as it can form a benchmark of what our own performance should be. For instance, I find it much more healthy and productive to measure my understanding of Ruby and Rspec against that of my fellow students than I do against my friends who have been programming for years, or the course leaders. It is also convenient. In the absence of any data about how I have performed in such an environment before, I can get a picture of what is expected of me by observing other people.

One of the biggest problems with this idea is that our observations of other people often give us a biased view of the average performance of people in our group. We’re much more likely to notice the people who are most visibly or vocally completing their work, leading us to believe that the whole group is working while we are not, especially during weekend challenges. At this point, it is helpful to stop comparing ourselves to others altogether, and trust ourselves and our own ability to plan our time.

Another problem with this idea is that our perception of other people’s’ performance always comes without the context of how they are feeling inside. All we see is their projection of how they are feeling, which may not reveal that they feel many of the same insecurities and struggles as we do. I often notice this play out when I am running in a race: all I can see is other people looking strong while I am feeling tired, and it can be intimidating. When I remind myself that we are all in the same position, and that we are performing as we are as a result of hard work in the face of a challenge that I stop feeling demoralised and start feeling motivated.

As well as a skewed perception of others, our opinion of ourselves is often skewed, leading to an inaccurate view of how well we are performing. One story that made me realise this was when I was a student and my friend said that she felt intimidated by a coursemate who was in the library studying all the time. She didn’t realise that in order to know this, she also had to be in the library all the time. Getting an accurate assessment of how we should be performing is difficult, but the best way I have found of getting this visibility is to communicate and collaborate with other people on my course.

Communication and collaboration

The best way to gain visibility on how other people are feeling is communication. This is one of the reasons why group retrospectives are so important. Allowing everyone in the group to open up about how their motivations and struggles enabled me to stop forming preconceptions of how other people are feeling, and engage my empathy. As a result I feel encouraged to help others as well as reaching out for help when I need it, in the knowledge that we are all doing our best to complete a big challenge. This feeling motivates me to do my best.

Collaboration is another great way to get a sense of how well you are doing, as well as enabling the group to benefit from sharing of resources. Whenever I help another person with a task or take an active role in a group session, I get valuable feedback about how capable I am of explaining myself well, and how comfortable I am with the concepts being discussed. It is much more reasonable to use my own performance in these tasks as a benchmark to constantly improve upon than to use the performance of other people.

Collaboration also has the obvious benefit that it allows everyone to share their resources. Everyone I have met so far has been more than happy to share knowledge, and it has been a great experience to use Slack and breakout sessions as means to pool our collective experience. I have picked up so many useful pointers and resources as a result, and I know that as long as I keep taking part, I will not get left behind.

The importance of being kind to ourselves

The last point I’ll make is that it’s important to be kind to yourself. Use the example set by other people to the extent that it is useful and provides you with an opportunity to learn. However under no circumstances use this example as a tool to make you unhappy. This is not just bad for productivity, but it forgets the most important person in the picture: you! You are the reason you have taken on the challenge, and you are ultimately responsible for each piece of success and learning you achieve. It’s important to take the time to recognise this, as it means that you can continue your journey feeling happy, and rightly appreciated for what you’ve been doing. When I notice that I am starting to berate myself for a lack of motivation or self-discipline, I try to remind myself that I am doing my best and that that is enough.

Comparing yourself to others is more often than not a source of angst, however I believe that if you maintain an awareness of the pitfalls, you can make the most out of a healthy level of competition. This is done most effectively when the group communicate and collaborate, enabling members to pull each other up and support each other. Ultimately though, the most important person in the journey we have undertaken is ourselves, and the highest priority over all others is to make sure that person is happy and appreciated.