Do you compare yourself with other people? When I was in graduate school, I admired the students who were a year or two ahead of me. They seemed smarter and more self-assured, and at group meetings they always had the right answers, delivered with a nonchalant cool that I desperately wanted to emulate.
In the lab, I remember admiring the fluid motions of one of the senior graduate students as he set up reactions, even the way he flicked test tubes into the glass waste bin. I realized later that he, too, had his struggles during graduate school. While I was fumbling in my hood attempting to run experiments, he was battling doubts about getting manuscripts published and navigating the swift waters of applying for postdoctoral positions or industrial jobs.
As a midcareer chemist, I haven’t stopped comparing myself with others. I’m keenly aware of which coworkers make key breakthroughs on major company projects. I don’t want to seem petty, but I am even aware of who last won the boss’s verbal praise. I wouldn’t call myself jealous, but I admit to craving more of the boss’s praise and being envious of those who are well regarded by others.
With social media, it’s hard to avoid playing the comparison game. People are unlikely to post on LinkedIn about their poor performance review or say, “Just another boring day at the lab/office!” Rather, they’ll announce their latest accomplishments: “So honored to win 2018 Employee of the Year!” along with a picture of them smiling while accepting a large piece of engraved Lucite from their senior leadership. Announcements of international conference travel and keynote addresses coupled with pictures of fine meals immediately make me scroll through my mental CV, and I can’t help but feel inadequate.
I regret that I’m not someone who will say, “Good for them!” immediately. My thoughts gravitate to “They are better than me” or “They’ve always been better than me.” When I see friends of mine from graduate school changing their titles to ever-more-impressive ones, it’s hard not to think, “Well, here I am, underachieving again.”
I know that this feeling of being an underachiever is fleeting and that it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Still, jealousy and envy can creep up in the most mundane situations. How many of us know people who have had serious disagreements over where their coworkers are seated or where their parking spaces are? These workplace resentments can run deep because of how different people are treated by leadership or how they are rewarded. These feelings can be built up over years of actual or perceived favoritism.
So what is a person who is naturally drawn to comparisons with one’s coworkers or classmates to do? First, put the situation in perspective. Some people are just more talented than others, and that’s OK. Also, recognize that the different ways they function may be what give them a competitive advantage. I do not want to become an entrepreneur, but I have worked with enough entrepreneurs to know that they are not that different from me in terms of intelligence or knowledge of chemistry and science. Rather, it’s their confidence that I lack. I don’t think I will be quitting my job and starting my own company anytime soon, but the shift of focus from “I am not as smart as them” to “Be on the lookout for an idea that I have deep confidence in” is a better way to think.
Instead of pouring your energies into envy, try channeling your thoughts into motivation. Find ways to improve yourself, and recognize that you, too, can achieve great things. Finally, cut yourself some slack. Overcome your insecurities by celebrating your accomplishments, however small they might seem. And once in a while, it doesn’t hurt to just close that LinkedIn tab and focus on moving forward.
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS..