When is comparison healthy?

Last week I wrote an open letter to those who can’t draw, and in that post I constantly reiterated the toxic power of comparison. A friend of mine, Eric Friedensohn, replied to my newsletter and asked a really good question: do I ever think comparison is healthy? He brought up a good point, it’s borderline impossible for us not to compare ourselves to others, and it’s seemingly a part of our nature. I totally agree with this, and so I figured I’d address when it’s healthy to compare ourselves.

As it relates to last week’s post, the request and advice to refrain from comparison was based purely on the kind of individual I was speaking to: those who don’t draw or do anything creative because they don’t think they’re good enough. At the beginning stages of anything, comparison fuels our fear and is often what stops us from ever starting. I’d go as far as to say that comparison is rooted in fear.

Although comparison comes natural and I’d argue is an integral to our growth, it’s important to recognize that fear is inherent in comparison. This isn’t to say that comparison or even fear for that matter are, in turn, inherently bad. We make comparisons to find comfort, and this is why it’s rooted in fear.

We are in a constant search for likeness and familiarity, and we find discomfort in the things we can’t understand or comprehend. Comparison then is at the foundation of metaphor—we use comparison to learn and better grasp abstract concepts and ideas. In our search for familiarity and our use of comparison, despite being fueled by fear, allows us to advance our learning.

However, in order for comparison to be effective you must know how to make proper comparison analyses. This is where most of the trouble comes from, very rarely are we making reasonable comparisons. When we aren’t careful and deliberate with how we make comparisons, the underlying fear in comparison defaults us into a negative mindset. Our fear tells us that when two things don’t line up then something is wrong, this isn’t necessarily the case.

“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
—Albert Einstein

Unrealistic Comparisons

This is relevant to last week’s post, it’s useless to compare ourselves to the masters when we’re beginners. Making these kind of comparisons stems from our natural inclination of having unrealistic expectations for ourselves. We all want to be good and it’s frustrating when we aren’t, but we must remember to leave our ego at the door when we set out on a new pursuit.

“The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.”
―Stephen McCranie


At any level, self-comparison is most often a healthy habit. When we look to ourselves to measure our progress, our growth isn’t dependent on the work or standings of others. Self-comparison allows us to be more gradual with our progress and can help instill us with patience. The wonderful thing about self-comparison is the fact that it places sole responsibility on yourself. If you want to be better than you were yesterday or last year then you must continue putting in the work. You can’t cast the myth of talent on your past self.

Looking at the Wrong Things

It’s so easy to get caught up in comparison that we then cast significance on factors that really don’t matter. How often have you said or heard, “they’re so young.” When we see other people being successful, we instinctively make surface level comparisons. We look to see what makes them and us similar and/or different. It’s far too easy to make surface level comparison, and very rarely do they actually matter.

Look to the Past

When we are comparing things, we usually look to the past. The past is a wonderful thing, it can be so helpful and revealing at times. We can look back to see what has worked and what hasn’t, however, the past isn’t definitive of how we need to or even can deal with the future. Be wary when looking to the past for comparison, and when doing so, always ask questions. Always contemplate how things may differ now, what factors once played a role but no longer due, what new factors now exist, and how can this be improved.

“We must discard the idea that past routine, past ways of doing things, are probably the best ways. On the contrary, we must assume that there is probably a better way to do almost everything. We must stop assuming that a thing which has never been done before probably cannot be done at all.”
—Donald M. Nelson

Comparison Can Be Healthy

It’s a natural tendency for us to make comparisons, but when we don’t know how to make proper comparisons we run the risk of negatively affecting ourselves. Just as you should to maintain your car and replace parts to keep it healthy, if you don’t know what you’re doing then you’re probably going to mess something up. The difference is, you can bring your car to a professional to deal with any problems that pop up, when it comes to comparison, you’re in charge of it yourself. It’s better to learn how to make healthy comparisons than to let our natural fear drive the train.

Lastly, you should listen to Ira Glass give advice to beginners: