how to compare yourself to the greatest people of all time

August 7, 2019

I’m often told it’s a mistake to compare my life to the success of others. It’s unrealistic, they say, and perhaps that’s true. Of course I’m not as good a chess player as Bobby Fischer or as visionary as Coco Chanel. It is unrealistic to aspire to be like these people and then be disappointed when I’m not nearly as brilliant. But Coco Chanel and Bobby Fischer are both great people to aspire to (in certain qualities.)

The key is to avoid comparison and just to observe. Bob Dylan looked at Woody Guthrie early in his career and thought there was no matching him. He was right. Even as Dylan would learn and sing Guthrie songs, he would always fall short of being Woody, for obvious reasons. Namely, Bob Dylan is not Woody Guthrie. He became Bob Dylan in the process.

So goes the process of comparison—we look at our idols, try to become like them, fall short, and then become ourselves. A few dangers lie the path. Depression, for one. Falling short makes me feel defeated by all measures. Despite the fact that I’m a solid five years old and there’s no real pressure to be anything substantial yet.

Another, becoming a shitty person. When I read the Steve Jobs biography at twelve, I figured it was okay to be an asshole because Steve did it, and by golly if Steve wasn’t a successful bastard. The fact is, he was. But thinking that I should be like him at such a young age was dangerous.

In the end, it’s all about finding joy in the work—or whatever that feeling is that keeps you going. Charles Bukowski never wanted to be the mythical cult figure that is Charles Bukowski. He just wanted to be drunk and write. I’ll be damned if that wasn’t a great formula for him.

It’s definitely not my path, but whatever mine is, that’s the one to follow.