Sunday, July 17, 2011
The Comparison Trap
Last week I talked about doubt and the writer. It's one of those mental obstacles we have to overcome if we're going to get anywhere in this game.
Here's another one: the comparison trap.
It's almost automatic that we writers look at who is on the rungs above us and, in doing so, stay constantly anxious about our own position. Noxious things start popping into the mind: Hey, I'm a better writer than he is. How come he's selling so much better than me? And what about that guy? He was nothing a few years ago when I taught at a conference. Where does he get off getting that advance? And then, of course, there's THAT one, the legend, the guy I admire most, the guy I wanted to be like, and it's pretty clear I'll never reach his level . . .
And so it goes. A certain amount of this you might chalk up to the competitive urge, which is not, per se, unhealthy. We need a little of that warrior in us. But if you let it fester you'll be cooked. You'll start looking and acting like Ebenezer Scrooge in the first act of A Christmas Carol.
I thought of the comparison trap the other day when I read a story about American tennis star Andy Roddick. Ten years ago, this teenage phenom shot to #1 in the world after winning the U.S. Open. Here, it was assumed, was the next great superstar in the game, the new Connors, McEnroe, Agassi or Sampras.
There was just one problem, and his name was Roger Federer. The Swiss superstar came out of nowhere and proceeded to own Andy Roddick. They've met 22 times. Federer has won 20 of those matches. Federer has gone on to win a record 16 Grand Slam titles. Roddick is still looking for his second.
Now 28, Roddick's best tennis may be behind him (aren't you glad your writing prime isn't based on athleticism?) He could look back and think that Federer's record might have been his.
But he's also accomplished more than most tennis players ever will. He's won several non-Slam titles, made it to #1 in the world, has a great Davis Cup record, he's rich and famous, married a model, and has a lifetime ahead as an ambassador for tennis. That doesn't exactly suck.
Here's something I tweeted that drew a lot of comments:
Comparison is death to a writer. Don't look up or down. Look at the page in front of you and nail it.
Every day I can look at another writer's career or recent success and get bent. Or I can be grateful for the career I have and keep doing what I do, which is write and try to do it better every time out.
There's something tremendously satisfying about that. I refuse to compare myself to others. Twenty years ago, unpublished, if I'd been shown my present career in a crystal ball I would have said Yes! Let me have that!
Gratitude is the great secret to happiness. Be content with what you have. You're unpublished? Be grateful you have the ability to learn the craft. Be grateful for new opportunities in the e-world. Your critique group getting you down? Be grateful for the people in your life who love you. Dogs and cats count, too.
And take a tip from Andy Roddick. "You keep moving forward until you decide to stop," he said recently. "At this point I've not decided to stop, so I'll keep moving forward."
So what about you? Do you find yourself prone to the comparison trap?