1) Why we do it and why this can be a problem
Comparing ourselves to others is a behaviour that follows us everywhere and can happen in any stage of life regarding looks, money, job, family status etc. This sort of self-reflection isn’t always a bad thing, as it allows us to set ourselves in the world around us. For example, the ability to recognize that you are a skilled writer could save you from following a less-successful route to becoming an engineer. Further, it helps to improve our abilities. By observing how other people do stuff, we can learn how to become more efficient or we might even feel great because we see that we have actually performed best from a group of people. The problem is that we often use this ability of self-reflection to make the most ridiculous comparisons. For instance, many women compare themselves to super thin models and feel bad about their own bodies even though they would never want a life where they are only allowed to eat one apple a day. At work, I don’t compare myself to the average achievements of all students in my PhD cohort (which wouldn’t make me feel bad) but the best (which can be discouraging).
Science is for many of us not only a job but a passion. We often don’t mind long working hours or sacrificing some of our free time on the weekend as we simply love what we do. However, science is a very competitive field and your success will depend on your achievements compared to those of others. Thus, we constantly compare ourselves to colleagues and (absurd) self-reflection causing negative feelings can have a pretty bad impact on us.
2) How to deal with it?
Albert Einstein once said: ‘Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.’ There are two interesting points in here:
1: At school we all have to pass the exact same exams. But, in science everyone has their own research projects which can be very different from one another. All the PhDs in my department work in the field of behavioural ecology but some of us work in the field, others in the lab, some have to start a project from scratch others get data ready to be analysed from the beginning. What I’m trying to say here is that in most cases comparisons to your peers will not make that much sense as everyone starts off with a very unique setting to do science.
2: Even if we assume that someone is working on exactly the same thing and appears to be better, this comparison will probably not give you anything. Of course, one could use such a comparison to learn how to improve in certain things. The truth is that there will be always someone who is better in something than we are! One person might be really good in analysing data, another one might be better in writing. So, why beat yourself up about it? Every person is unique and has their own personal talents, on which we should focus more rather than dwelling on weaknesses!
I wanted to write about this issue because this sort of self-doubting and anxiety seems to be pervasive, affecting a majority of academics. There are some great resources on the internet about avoiding unnecessary comparisons, which might be helpful for some of you (e.g. https://www.becomingminimalist.com/compare-less/). In my opinion, self-reflection will follow us through our whole life and it will probably never fully stop turning into negative thoughts about ourselves. But, being aware of this issue, knowing how many people suffer from it, and how often it is actually complete nonsense, helps me to get rid of those unnecessary thoughts faster. I hope this post can also help some other people realize that most comparisons are not very helpful and that whenever you feel miserable there is actually no need to be!