There’s nothing new here that hasn’t been said before. But, sometimes, it serves us well to be reminded of adages which embiggen and embolden us. While perhaps not the most eloquent way of putting it, the phrase ‘Don’t Compare Your Inside to Someone Else’s Outside’ caught my attention browsing one Hacker News comment thread recently. It aptly sums up some of the things I’ve been feeling and writing about in recent months, particularly Oh Dear! I Shall Be Too Late! and the follow-up I Took the Road Less Traveled By.
Image: Businessman, Shutterstock
A brief excerpt from my post:
Over the past few months (or perhaps years), I’ve increasingly become aware of my tendency to become fixated on people in other professions. Very often when watching videos (TED talks are great examples), reading books (lately entrepreneurial titles), meeting friends (recently the Tofugu team) and hanging out at networking events (Business in Japan, First Step Up – etc), I find myself drawn into the other person’s world. I find myself utterly captivated by who they are and what they do. What makes them successful in their niche and what gives them their driving force to get up in the morning and go out to do great things.
Why can’t I be like them? I wonder. What I couldn’t do if I had those skills and experience!
And then shortly after the highs gained from the buzz of interaction have lessened, I sink back down to overwhelming reality to ponder my own existence. I feel the same as I did 7 years ago, right on the verge of entering university. The same ideals and lofty aspirations. The same drive to do something great and live life to the fullest. And yet here I am, 7 years later, with a degree and several years work experience, a semi-successful website and a collection of amazing explorations and experiences under my belt. But my direction is still unclear.
Although I mention several networking events and other meetings I had that led me to feel disheartened, another quite frequent source of these unpleasant feelings was non other than everyone’s favourite social media platform, Facebook. I’m by no means a heavy user, but on most days I do log in and check what my friends and family are up to, browsing the live feed combining everyone’s happy status updates. Almost without fail, I would end up leaving the website with a bruised ego; more concerned at the state of my life than happy for my friend’s successes. I was well aware of this pattern and, aiming to avoid the feelings, kept telling myself that I had more important things I needed to be working on. But try as I did, the compulsion to check-in for a short break was too strong, and I inevitably continued to let myself suffer.
Image: Ray of light, Shutterstock
So it wasn’t until I read this line about one’s messy insides and other people’s glorious outsides that it really twigged what was happening. Despite receiving lots of fantastic advice from friends on the internet in response to my outpouring of self-doubt, the perfect lives and successes of those around me kept nipping at my legs, constantly reminding me that I wasn’t living the full and fruitful life that I should have been. But it’s all an illusion, brought on by the human tendency to see other people more favourably than we do ourself.
Don’t Compare Your Inside to Someone Else’s Outside!
We have direct knowledge of our own thoughts and feelings and a catalogue of life experiences that leave memories imprinted on our soul. Even if we don’t know how to interpret these things correctly or explain them to others, we have an intrinsic understanding of our own inner self because it is intrinsically a part of us an individual, living human being. Something that is never fully able to be shared with others. We intimately know our own failures, worries, doubts and fears, but we rarely show these to the outside world.
Image: Inner self, Shutterstock
In contrast however, in order to understand the inner self of others, we must rely on stories and appearances to form our perceptions. Even if shared directly with us by the person themselves, the translation of these feelings, memories and experiences through language and behaviour and the consequent interpretation as we receive them through our senses causes something to be lost. No longer is our understanding based on direct access to the sensations that give rise to a person’s inner self, but instead a frail ghost, incomplete as the result of many things lost in translation.
Add to that the human social norm to outwardly show ourselves flourishing, and suddenly our perceptions of those around us end up quite removed from the true reality they experience. We don’t see the inner fears and doubts of strangers, or even of those close to us in many cases, but rationally we know these unpleasant emotions are hiding somewhere inside. Often we are reminded of this truth when having heartfelt exchanges with friends and family, or when calamity befalls someone nearby and they become physically or mentally sick. In cases like these, the veil falls and their fragile humanity comes pouring out. The successful reporter worrying about her reputation. The professor dreading the peer review of his research paper. The working mum battling to raise moody teenagers. The couple who just fought. The CEO struggling to maintain composure in front of a board of stockholders. Why is it then that despite being able to arrive at this rational conclusion, and we know a life is never free or imperfections, that we always seem to forget it..?
As a brief interlude, I’m reminded of the lyrics from Message in a Bottle by Sting. An especially beautiful verse that helps remind us that we’re not as alone as we may sometimes think.
Walked out this morning, I don’t believe what I saw
A hundred billion bottles washed up on the shore.
Seems I’m not alone in being alone.
A hundred billion castaways looking for a home.
Of course, this all seems rather obvious in retrospect – nothing that you couldn’t pick up from a cheap self-help book anyway. Perhaps it was the crude wording in the line that really drove the message home this time. I tend to like rather wise and wordy quotations from philosophers of old, but there’s no mistaking that some of the original depth to cleverly-worded messages can be lost in modern society. It needed the context of Likes and status updates to really deliver its message.
And yet I wonder – how did people fare before the advent of the internet and social networks? Before the time in our history where at the click of a button you could see real time updates from people’s lives scattered all around the world. How did our ancestors judge their own self worth, and what, in turn, caused them to experience the same feelings of self-doubt? It’s certainly not an exclusively modern phenomenon, but perhaps it’s exacerbated by modern technology. Is it the case that the less people you have to compare yourself to, the less your self worth is challenged? Is the hermit at peace because he’s alone, or because he does not willingly compare himself to others..?
I’ll wrap up this journal entry here. So – don’t make the mistake of comparing your own reality to the appearances of others. Don’t measure yourself on the successes of those around you. I couldn’t find a similar historical quote that captures exactly the same essence as today’s adage, but if you know of one, let me know! And, if you’re feeling up to it, why not try removing your veil and letting me hear of your own worries and concerns?