“Comparison is the thief of joy”

Theodore Roosevelt put it well, when he called-out the harmful effects of comparing who we are and what we have with others.

Toby Hazlewood
Feb 20 · 11 min read
Time to reflect (Photo by Keegan Houser from Pexels)

Thanks to the proliferation of social media and ubiquity of smartphones it’s easier than ever to see what others have and to use this knowledge to beat up on ourselves for not having or being the same.

Comparison with others is inevitably from a biased point of view, entirely subjective and generally unhelpful. In spite of this, we are all guilty of doing it. Awareness of the tendency and its effects doesn’t make it any easier to avoid. It also doesn’t help us in rationalising the side-effects when we feel envious or demoralised as a result of comparisons we make.

I’m as guilty of making frequent unhelpful comparisons as everyone else. It’s the default and go-to method by which I assess what I’ve got, who I am, how I’m doing and whether I’m on track to be who I want to be. I wish I didn’t do it as often, but I do.

I think there’s a healthier way of making comparisons though, which offers enormous potential in assessing progress and maintaining motivation to improve.

As unhelpful as comparisons with others have been, conversely I’ve gained great value from comparisons made with a version of myself in the past. This has provided a means of objectively assessing my progress towards becoming the person I want to be and the effects of actions I’ve taken and habits I’ve adopted.

I’ve found this particularly valuable at times when I feel bogged-down in the process, too close to the day-to-day doing of life to be able to see if the actions I’m taking are helping me to move in the right direction.

With this in mind, here are a few things I’ve been able to recognise about the version of me right now, compared to who and where I was about 3 years ago. The purpose of the exercise was to remind me, in lieu of being able to see the wood for the trees, just how far I’ve come. Forgive me if it sounds self-congratulatory; in sharing it, I’m hoping it may help you to undertake a similar comparison for yourself at points in time in your own life. Maybe it’ll signpost some things that might benefit you as much as they have me.

So here it goes; me now, compared to me three years ago.

I’ve always favoured action over apathy and never considered myself to like wasting time. Over the last three years, I’ve converted this general sentiment into an over-arching ethos that shapes how I try to live each and every day.

I start each day by getting up early, and work with purpose and focus, 5 days per week. I’m not especially evangelical about the need to rise and grind, and early mornings aren’t for everyone, for sure. What I’ve established over the last 3 years is that while I’m not universally springy and sprightly when the alarm goes off, I have the capacity to wake up routinely by 5.15am most mornings, Monday to Friday and to productively use the time before those around me wake. In doing so, I’ve unlocked a couple of extra hours per day that were previously unproductive and have turned them to my advantage through consciously planning their use. I’ve claimed back the time lost from sleep, by getting to bed earlier instead of aimlessly gawping at the TV or scrolling through pages of social media updates.

I’ve used the time won in the morning for journaling, guided meditation, exercise, reflection, writing and creative work. At times of heightened pressure in my day-job, I’ve eased my overwhelm by logging on early, clearing the backlog of email and dealing with whatever other tasks were weighing heavily on my mind. When I’ve felt a lack of control over my personal admin, the time has been used to get things in order.

The effects of this are greater than the mere act of rising early. I’ve obtained a new-found respect for and appreciation of time and how much I can get done. Whether my goal is to make progress in a project, to explore creative ventures, to give more of my time to my work, to fit in exercise or simply to address the causes of feelings of overwhelm, I’m proud that I can describe myself as someone who takes care of business, and gets things done. I make best use of my time where in the past I was content to just go with the flow.

I used to be obsessed by the prospect of wealth and status, and this guided my actions and my mind-set. When my focus rested on the achievement of something else, something indefinably bigger and better than I had, I seemed to remain stalled in a state of dissatisfaction and ingratitude with all that I had. I lived with innate resentment towards the many commitments that I had built up in life, which I convinced myself stood in the way of achieving the life I thought I dreamed of.

I’ve learned since that practicing gratitude changes the way I view and experience the world and my life within it. I’ve detached my current and future happiness from the achievement of notional goals and obtaining of arbitrary trappings of success that I’d built up in my mind as the be-all and end-all of life.

I now live a happier, more balanced and contented existence than I did, even though little has changed materially or financially in my life. All change is to be accredited to the way I look at things and the gratitude I feel for my present circumstance. I still feel deprived at times, and yearn at times for more money (for example), I’m no saint but I’m closer to being free of attachment of my happiness to random ‘stuff’.

I definitely still work to live rather than living to work. My day-job is a little soulless, but I find it interesting and am lucky enough to be able to do it well enough to make a decent living that supports me and my family. When I started to explore greater meaning and creativity alongside the day-job, to invest myself in developing a side-hustle of sorts, I recall my personal drive being towards the money I could make as a result.

That may be a pleasant and welcome side-effect of my efforts, but time has taught me that the pursuit of monetization of anything first and foremost is usually a route to disappointment and demoralisation. Results seldom manifest as you want them to or in the form you’d like them to take.

“You can have everything you want if you just help enough other people get what they want”

-Zig Ziglar

I wholeheartedly believe in the sentiment above from Zig Ziglar. Freeing ourselves from a focus on making money as a result of our efforts allows the focus to be put firmly on identifying the niche that we can help and then doing work that helps them to solve the problems they face.

In having adopted this viewpoint, I’ve overcome my initial fixation on monetary reward, and been able to focus more on what I do and create rather than the results that come from it. And as it happens, the results have been all the more free-flowing and positive.

I used to think I knew enough, like I was a finished article, prepared for the world and equipped with the skill and knowledge to allow me to function. Learning was for people who didn’t know what they wanted to do. Reading was a means of passing the time on vacation, with a crime-fiction novel or two. I’m embarrassed at this now that I write it down and read it back.

Now, I crave knowledge to fill the sponge-like brain that I’m pleased to consider as ignorant and empty as far as future learning is concerned. With each book I read, podcast I listen to and course I go on, I’m desperate to satiate my craving for learning, knowledge and growth. The more I learn, the more I want to learn, and the more I want to share this gift with others.

I don’t regret too much about my life, but I acknowledge that I wasted a lot of years in mindlessly allowing time to pass and filling my mind with trash consumed online and watching TV when I could have been using it to learn, to read and to grow.

I credit reading with having made me more eloquent in my speech, more fluid in my thinking and more inquisitive and analytical in my ability to interpret and relate to the world around me.

Looking back… (Photo by Taras Zaluzhny on Unsplash)

The old me thought he was invincible. I thought that supposed strong genes and robust physical stature was essentially a licence to do whatever I wanted. I conveniently ignored the statistical realities of diseases and conditions that affect the health of people just like me every day. I pretended that liberal incidences of heart disease, cancer and diabetes scattered through my family history presented little risk to me. I drank too much, I abused my body through poor diet and lifestyle choices and neglected exercise with any consistency until late in my thirties.

I’m fortunate to be able to relay that I remain unaffected by the aforementioned conditions (to the best of my knowledge) but whatever wake-up-call I have heard, I’m pleased that I responded to it. I’ve done many things in my life in an ‘arse-about-face’ way; I had kids before most of my peers had settled into their first jobs after University. I had clocked up one divorce before most of my friends had celebrated their first marriage. I have also discovered the pinnacle of my fitness (to-date) in my early forties.

I now understand the integral role that health and fitness plays in relation to all aspects of life. I’m still striving for the secret-formula that will make this habit stick for life, but I’m getting better at it. About 9 months of 2018 were spent ‘on the regime’ and I’m going for 100% of 2019 and onwards.

I know that nobody has the power to guarantee my longevity and statistically I’ll succumb to one or more major illness in my life at some point. I’m also aware that the ever-increasing life-expectancy of each generation means I have scope to enjoy at least as many years as I’ve enjoyed on this planet again, maybe even twice that. I’ve no intention of making a long and cossetted life my sole-focus, but unlike the former-me, I don’t put the responsibility for maximising my lifespan in the hands of fate or anyone else.

It all rests with me.

I don’t sadistically seek out difficulty and hardship, but nor do I labour under the misapprehension that there is a shortcut to success, wealth, happiness, fulfilment or satisfaction. The fruits we enjoy taste sweet precisely because of the labours that have been applied to make them grow. Overnight success is a fallacy, a myth designed to hide the hard-graft that is demanded to achieve anything of significance.

I’ve got enough war-stories and tales-to-tell that have taught me this lesson amply over the years. It has applied in my accomplishments in parenting my kids after divorce, building a career, managing my health, dealing with personal adversities and challenges and achieving a happy and loving marriage in spite of numerous setbacks and negative experiences along the way.

Each of these experiences has taught me that anything worth doing or having in life demands hard-work and tenacity to get it, to value it and to keep it.

Keep on keeping on… (Photo by Victor Freitas on Unsplash)

I’m not quite a card-carrying Stoic, but I’ve yet to read a principle of that philosophy that I disagree with. Fundamentally, I recognise that I cannot control the things that happen around me. All I can control is the way I react to them and the things that I do in response. I spent many years lamenting the perceived unfairness of life, how things that seemed largely out of my control were responsible for shaping my destiny. I lived as a victim, and a subject to what went on around me. All that was bull.

The buck for my life stops here, with me. I’m not all powerful or all-controlling and there will be plenty of things that happen on a daily basis that I have no sway over. True personal empowerment has come from focusing my efforts on learning better how to accept this fact. It has helped me to build my own reserves of grit and resolve, and as a result I’m better equipped to thrive in the ever-changing world.

Sure, I find some things that happen to be frustrating. I get demoralised and frustrated when things don’t go my way.

I’m now quicker to recognise the realities of any given situation, and to plot a response or merely to rationalise my reaction and recognise it for what it is. The side-effect of this has been that obstacles and failures become learning points. The challenges and tests present opportunities for learning and growth. I’m quicker to let go of the harsh-words and idiocy that happens around me, that I would previously have obsessed over for days.

The ability to rise to any challenge has proven to be the defining factor in the outcomes I see from the things I do in life and how well I weather the challenges I face.

You can read more about the role of grit in this excellent article by James Clear. In the piece, James sums up the role of grit about as succinctly as I’ve ever seen it:

“In every area of life — from your education to your work to your health — it is your amount of grit, mental toughness, and perseverance predicts your level of success more than any other factor we can find.”

-James Clear

Comparisons can be immensely unhelpful when used as a means of beating ourselves up.

When they’re used to assess progress and to establish the effectiveness of things we’ve done in getting us from point A to point B, I think instead they have real merit. I can’t point at where I am now and place credit solely upon one step or one action in getting me here from there. The sum of the parts and the composite of all things is responsible for the changes I’ve seen.

What I feel I can say with certainty is that things are on a positive trajectory, and that a prescription of ‘more of the same’ will likely see the effects continue to emerge in my life. Achieving this visibility and belief has been enabled by comparison of myself now, with myself a few years ago, and I’m grateful for the insight enabled by the reflection.

Toby

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Toby Hazlewood

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Writer, parent, husband, project manager and cycling enthusiast. If you enjoy my writing, please feel free to say hello at tobyhazlewood.com

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