Basking in the sun during a long awaited post-COVID vacation, a lifelong awaited vacation, the splurge of the decade, I found myself eavesdropping on a mind bending poolside discussion. And since I couldn’t interject my uninvited thoughts into that very interesting conversation, I opened up my computer and began to type.
A man of my similar age and ethnicity attempted to convince his counterparts as to what he thought defined success.
As drunk as he was degrading, he was attempting to educate his peers by elevating himself.
He went into a long winded explanation about the erroneous importance of “fail-safe” education, claiming that only his position, his standing, and his career are ones that can bring about success; success, he defined, materialistically, as take home pay.
Apparently his degree holding contemporaries were bringing home a measly $200K per year; while he, a successful sales executive, without a college education, took home an average of half a million dollars every 6 months. Why he announced his earnings confused me, unless of course it was the delicious poolside mudslides that distorted his filter.
I slightly elevated in my seat at his comments, bit my lip as to not speak up, for having 8 years of post high school education in tow I couldn’t disagree more with his discourse. Without a doubt, in my mind, it was the level of my extensive, and at times torturous, education that had brought me success, though mine fell short of his self-announced rubric.
My education brought me a home, a business I loved running, a retirement fund, and money to put away towards my daughter’s education. It brought me conservative savings and the ability to lie by the pool a chair away from him. I am very lucky to say that I and am not a paycheck away from financial disaster, like millions of Americans.
And though I bring home far less than half a million dollars every 6 months, or for that matter every 12 months, was I any less successful than he? Why was I allowing myself to measure against his ill-defined measure of achievement?
And more importantly, why did I feel compelled to compare?
A GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING
Before I jump into the our cyclical need to compare, for the sake of my own sanity, allow me to address Mrs. Mudslide, as if he were reading this, specifically on his opinion of education.
No amount of money would take away the importance I place in education. Especially well rounded education. Education sets us up for a growth mindset, an indispensable tool driving life forward.
And, the snarky part of me would have said to Mr. Mudslide that sans education, he would have no teachers to teach his children, no doctors to treat his parents and no engineers to design his home. Education for me, and probably for many of my readers, is a non-negotiable.
Mr. Mudslide made me realize it truly is our education that has brought us the ability to serve a higher calling of providing for people, of healing people. It’s something extra we have and often forget that within itself is also a measure of success.
Educated for almost a decade longer than he, we are in a unique situation to affect the lives of not just our parents, spouses and children but also our team members, and above all our patients. As much as Mr. Mudslide gleamed with pride on account of his earnings, I believe he used it to overcompensate for how insecure he felt without an education.
So, he, in turn, was also comparing… like I was.
Let’s not pretend that we don’t sneak glances into each other’s lives. Let’s not pretend that we don’t constantly evaluate what is happening in other’s lives and use it as a ruler for our own.
Women especially, but men alike, judge and make up realities about others based on labels of clothes, purses, shoes, even zip codes; We rubber neck to see what car the other is driving; we look at the wedding rings and immediately make a decision about the success of the spouse gifting that ring.
Vacation photos, the kids’ extracurriculars, crowns prepped in a day, or new patient exams in a month are all a part of how we view our counterparts, their relative success and use it to define either a more fruitful or less compelling success within our own lives.
I suffered on account of comparing for countless hours, have thought about it for countless hours. And recently I have been researching what comparing has to do with advancing our own mission forward. The initial answer is quite simple, at least in terms of evolution. The constant rubbernecking we are so familiar with, started as prehistorical humans scanned the environment around them for prey or for food.
Comparison ought to have driven us forward. It ought to have inspired us. If Caveman Jones brought home more animals to eat, Caveman Smith would have hunted longer the next day to bring that same reward to his family.
And that seemed reasonable, a sort of utilitarian way of dispensing and following the admittedly shameful art of comparing.
And though we seemed to have outgrowth the need to gather food our evolutionary and genetic makeup has kept comparing the same; or maybe we have kept it same. We continue to distractingly look over into the windows of our neighbors and using what we see there to define the success here, within our own walls.
Now I must say, in contemporary culture, comparing can serve as a sort of inspiration to be better and to do better.
If you find someone worth looking up to, and you compare yourself to that person, and it ought to motivate you to overcome whatever obstacle stand in your way, seeing in another person what is possible.
Yet, we seem to do compare for shaming rather than growing.
A FIGHT AWAY FROM COMPATING INTO AUTHENTICITY
Some of the saddest information I’d read on the subject came out of Psychology Today (August 2021).
“The feeling of authenticity (or lack thereof) comes from whether or not we are acting in line with the reputation we want. In other words, we feel most in line with our true self when we achieve our desired social image. Failure to achieve it, or losing it, makes us feel less authentic.”
How we view ourselves, our worth, comes in great part out from what we think others consider successful for us. So, if Mrs. Neighbor would think me successful for owning a Tesla X, I am driven to deliver that.
That would be a proof of my own success. The drive to purchase that car would be less reliant on the car’s value and my family’s need, less reliant on my pre-approval for that car’s purchase, and certainly less reliant on the car’s safety record.
That car in my driveway would be all about adding to my own self worth. I specifically use the example of car shopping, because there was a point in my life (not too long ago) where I almost bought that very car, a car I couldn’t quite afford. I considered its’ purchase, fantasizing that it would make me seem more successful in the eyes of my peers.
I pictured myself pulling into continuation education courses with other dentists rubbernecking at my car; I fantasized that it would have somehow given the reputation I thought I wanted; I still shame at the thought. This idea was so wrong, on so many levels, and yet we all find ourself pushing for it, endlessly, tirelessly, aimlessly.
The solution to all of this, the solution to aimlessly comparing and sabotaging how you successful you feel, is to figure out who we are and what we value, how we define our own success. And then, in moments of sabotage inducing comparison we’d find a way to maneuver away from doing the wrong thing for wrong reason, or even the right thing for the wrong reason.
Anchoring to your true self is the golden ticket out of comparing.
Part of the reason why I felt so enraged by Mr. Mudslides comments was because I used his income level against my own for self-validation, in which I had failed. Knowing his income, devalued me. Now imagine if the roles were reversed, if it was me that was announcing my salary to my contemporaries and it was Mr. Mudslide who was eavesdropping.
Imagine, would he be affected by that conversation? Would he feel elevated by my measly education-earned income? Perhaps, but I guarantee you he would not be distressed enough to write about it. Here is the interesting part: we tend to over focus on many more examples of people who are more successful than us, and less successful than us.
When we think of how we define success, or even how we stack against our peers, why don’t we consider that as long as we have $4,210 to our name we are better than half the world? Why don’t we consider that if we have a net worth of $93,170 we are in the top 10% of the world? I believe the answer is two fold, for one, this culture is based on anything we can count.
It seems to be some sort of standard, a ruler of sorts. And two woven into that self-validation is also a sense of entitlement. If Mr. Mudslide makes x times more than I do and it somehow makes me think that I could too, or that I should too.
Its’s the very common in our now-culture ‘why me?’ mentality, or rather ‘why NOT me?’
Once you realize that you compare for the sake of self-validation, once you begin to catch yourself in moments of self imposed entitlement, ridding of self comparison becomes easier.
Though I won’t lie, it is a process.
YOU COUNT WHAT YOU CAN SEE
The fallacy of comparing and how it affects the life we choose and the things we deem important, is that we compare what we can count. We anchor success in materialism: home, car, jewelry, box seats and vacations; we decide success in production numbers, in practices owned, even in retirement age. We attach to numbers, as these can be seen, these can be counted.
But the things that really matter, the feelings of joy and of flow and of peace, those can’t be counted. We don’t compare humor and glee because there is no real way to measure that. We don’t compare the growth of our minds, the peace in our soul because we don’t haven’t forced ourselves to share that. And as such they are often taken for granted. And in that lies the answer to getting rid comparing.
How many moments of life are we missing counting the dollars and comparing the designer bags? Success, as we know it, is the control (we think) we have over life. Instead, it is success that has control over us.
Let me rephrase that again, because this has been a life changing realization for me: As long as we consider success as something we can count, and not something we can feel, it will be the restrictive force that will guide our decisions and behavior away from a good life, one worth waking up for in the morning.
Success has nothing to do with comparing, nothing to do with what can be counted, nothing to do with who you know and where you shop. It has everything to do with a state of mind. Success is to be free, to be available and to be strong in order to maneuver the intricacies and surprises of life. Success isn’t a place, or a number, it’s not even a feeling.
Success is being. Being present. But more on that in my next article.
More about Mindful Moments (the column) here: https://www.dentistrytoday.com/mindful-moments-dentistry-today/
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Augustyn earned her DDS degree from the University of Illinois Chicago. She has completed the course sequence in the Dawson Academy’s continuum in oral equilibration and cosmetic dentistry. Dr. Augustyn is a general dentist and writer in Elmhurst, Ill, and lives near Chicago with her husband and daughter. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.