Comparison is toxic

At the risk of getting a bit too honest, I want to talk a bit about the toxic plague of comparison in academia. While I’ve got academia in my sights today, I think my message today is more universal.

Early in graduate school, I fell prey to CV anxiety. I have no idea if anybody else has ever called it that, but what I am referring to is a constant worry that I would never build an impressive CV with as many papers as the next person. I hit a point where seeing another academic’s CV could sideline me for the rest of the day because I’d be convinced I’d never achieve as much as that person. It wouldn’t matter if it was another grad student or a retiring professor—I could find a way to normalize their achievements against mine in a way that consistently left me discouraged or even paralyzed.

I eventually hit a wall and had to get help, which I received at different levels and in different ways from friends, family, colleagues, and yes a counselor or two. What I eventually learned is this:

What other people accomplish has nothing to do with me. It says nothing about me. It is not targeted at me. It shouldn’t have bearing on my life.

Everybody achieves what they achieve in an entirely different context. By that I mean that everyone was raised in different families, went to different schools, was surrounded by different social circles, devoted themselves to different extracurriculars, developed at different rates (not only as children, but also as adults), entered grad school with differing grasps of mathematics and science, carries different burdens and life responsibilities, cares more or less, pursued PhD’s for different reasons, has an advisor with different levels of control of the project, and wants to do different things afterwards. Almost all of these are private factors that you will never know about others. Given all that, how do you expect to objectively benchmark yourself against someone else?

You don’t have to live up to what somebody else accomplished. That’s not to say there isn’t a threshold for what will earn you a PhD—there is. But within that framework, who really cares exactly how many or how prestigious your papers are as long as you’re happy, it gets you where you want to be, and you can be proud of who you are.

That person who accomplished n-times your output may have had to sacrifice something that would never be worth it to you. You kept your humanity and lived by your convictions, something far more important. And before anybody cries foul, I’m not saying that in order to be successful, you must have sacrificed something important. I’m more saying that you have no idea what another person’s life looks like behind the scenes and whether you’d want to live that person’s private life to have their public perception.

At the end of the day, do the best you can. It’s really satisfying. You’ll sleep better. Do live a curious life trying to learn and push yourself to get better, but for God’s sake, put down the stick.