Why You Compare Your Career To Others (And How To Stop)
Imagine Jim Carrey went to Harvard Law School and became a successful lawyer. Or that Oprah Winfrey was a top cardiologist in the U.S. Or if Ernest Hemingway became a CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
People would be impressed and pat them on the back. Their family, friends, and loved ones would shower them with encouragement for achieving such high-status positions.
But unfortunately they would have settled in life. They may have impressed the world with their high-stature positions like doctor and lawyer, but they would not have lived the life within them.
Jim Carrey wouldn’t have become the entertainer he had been from childhood. Oprah Winfrey wouldn’t have built her empire to help people all over the world. Ernest Hemingway wouldn’t have written great American literature.
There are many reasons we stray off our true path in life, but comparing ourselves to others and their prestigious positions is a common one.
The Temptation of Prestige
“Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you'd like to like.” - Paul Graham
This magnetic pull of prestige often leaves people confused not only about their careers but also about their passions and purpose in general. We tend to believe that society knows what we want better than ourselves. Consequently, we sincerely follow societal rules, only to find ourselves feeling unfulfilled and perplexed.
Even Parker Palmer, the author of one of my favorite books on purpose, Let Your Life Speak, struggled with the allure of prestige. When considering the position of president at an educational institution, he was asked what he would like most about being president. In a candid and honest response, he admitted, "I guess what I'd like most is getting my picture in the paper with the word 'president' under it.”
Even following what we're told is morally or ethically right can steer us away from our true path. Because it doesn’t matter if you dedicate your life to feeding the homeless or curing a disease if you were truly meant to become a music teacher, a writer, or a personal trainer.
I personally learned this when I read A Life of One’s Own by Marion Milner. In the excavation of her own desires, she noted “I don’t want a life of service to a good cause, so it’s no good pretending I do.”
Seeing Through Prestige and Breaking Free From Comparison
It’s normal to get caught up in prestige, we’ve all been there.
But the more you get to see it for what it is, and the more clear you are on your own purpose and desires, the less attracted you’ll be to it. You’ll see it as a trap that will only lure you away from what you want.
Think about it — when it comes to things like drugs or gambling, you probably know to stay away from them. Aside from the physical and financial destruction they cause, society would judge you for doing any of these. That shame can be more potent than any other damage those activities cause.
But when it comes to abandoning your purpose in the name of keeping up with your peers, it’s not such an obvious decision. In fact, society will applaud you for giving up on your dreams (one reason is that pursuing your dreams will make those around you uncomfortable.)
That being said if you can see the costs of pursuing prestige, and if you get clear on what you want, you won’t get fooled by society's prizes. You’ll look down upon them as the pitiful games that they are. You’ll feel the same about them as doing drugs or gambling: they are short-term pleasures that are ultimately destructive.
Step 1: Determine Your Motivation
The first step is to honestly evaluate whether your pursuit or interest in something is driven by the desire for societal approval. We often seek applause in various forms: wealth, status, admiration, a sense of identity, or even social media likes and follows. Take a moment to reflect deeply on the perceived gains you associate with the work you're considering. Remember, your life's work should be about giving more than you gain.
Ask yourself, why do you want to pursue this? What truly interests you about it? Avoid falling back on knee-jerk responses like "I find X interesting" or "I've always been fascinated by Y." These phrases are often surface-level responses we repeat to avoid introspection. Instead, pinpoint what specifically captivates you about it.
Next, imagine a scenario where every job pays the same, and none of them offer fame or recognition. Whether you're a musician, kindergarten teacher, CEO, or doctor, you'd earn $70k per year and remain unknown beyond your immediate circle. In this hypothetical situation, would you still choose the same line of work you're considering? Would other options emerge that you hadn't previously considered?
That being said, it can be challenging to intellectualize your way through such a decision. Sometimes, you might struggle to discern whether your motivation stems solely from societal expectations. In these cases, the best approach is to do a small experiment where you actually try engaging in the activity.
Step 2: Attain Clarity About Your Desires
The clearer you are about your own desires and goals, the less likely you'll be enticed by the allure of prestige. It's natural to feel tempted when you see your friends pursuing careers as doctors or lawyers which come with promising salaries and socially recognized identities. But if you have a clear vision of the life you want for yourself, you won't easily succumb to that temptation.
Gaining clarity regarding your desires is a process that requires time and exploration, especially if you have never delved deeply into what you truly want. Marion Milner found this out when she began exploring her desires: "My list of 'wants' was a very censored one, only those that my 'self' approves of.”
Just remember that this process entails trial and error. I’ve personally tried tons of things that didn’t work out. Ultimately you don’t know until you actually come into contact with what it is you want.
Step 3: Understand Where True Admiration Comes From
If you do anything well enough, you'll make it prestigious. Plenty of things we now consider prestigious were anything but at first… So just do what you like, and let prestige take care of itself. - Paul Graham
True respect and admiration arise when you are being your true self. It's not about your job title or salary.
I discovered this when I saw an older man on TikTok playing classical guitar. He would go live every day, sharing his music with anyone who wanted to listen. Even though he didn't have a lot of followers or streams on Spotify, as a fellow musician I admired him a lot. He was doing what he loved and that was inspiring.
And that being said, when you find something you're passionate about, you won't worry about respect or admiration. You'll be happy doing what you love, and will feel no need to compare yourself to others.
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