A common adage in creative work is to never compare yourself to others. But how many of us actually follow this advice?
Suggestions that are commonly heard but rarely heeded should raise a red flag. If we’re hard-wired to answer “How am I doing?” through comparison, suppressing the urge only ends up hiding a more nuanced reality — that comparisons aren’t inherently toxic, and are in fact as productive as you make them.
A healthy comparison is looking at good work, or even bad work, and analyzing its parts. If you study a wide variety of material you’ll find the contrast creates context, on both a granular level (“Why is this so good/bad?”) and a global level (“Why do I keep seeing this?”).
This context matters for three reasons.
1. You don’t know what greatness looks like
You can’t create excellent work until you’ve felt its presence. As Stephen King said of his craft, “You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.”
This feeling is one of few ways to set and move qualitative goal posts. The abstract yardstick used to measure “quality” can only form through consumption. The good, the bad, and the ugly — you need to know them well and revisit them often. If there’s a better way to acquire taste, I haven’t found it.
Let’s talk examples. By all accounts, longform writing is a new skill for me. I’d like to improve, but hard measures like pageviews are lagging indicators that haven’t taught me anything about quality. Indeed, only comparison has.
In addition to my hero John McPhee’s rightful love of structure, comparison has convinced me that great communication rests on three other important traits:
Maybe experience will prove me wrong. I’d welcome it. But I’m not sure how I’d make a conscious effort to improve without an intended destination. And I’m not sure how I’d pick a destination without knowing where I could be.
2. Originality is a moving target
Have you ever heard of the “Seinfeld is Unfunny” trope? It describes the backlash that awaits innovative work — since everything made after bears its mark, an influential idea will often seem stale to the next generation.
Even a purple cow won’t stand out once the whole herd has gone lavender.
I’d describe this as the creative metagame, or understanding “the game outside the game.” Whatever you make will be deemed original or cliché in comparison to what currently exists; creation may be about the lonely hours, but a final product is never judged in isolation. It lives in a dynamic, ever-changing ecosystem.
Getting ahead of the curve, or doing the unexpected, means eschewing what everyone currently expects, which requires knowing what everyone expects. Knowing the metagame — or comparing your work to what exists today — is useful for spotting opportunities for differentiation. Gaps become more obvious when you fill in the areas around them.
3. Some problems are mostly solved
The benefits of being different need to be balanced with the truth that not everything is worth doing differently. Sometimes your best bet is to do common things uncommonly well.
the way you get very good is to learn from the best, even 5% of the best is way better than 50% of somebody who isn't very good at all— Amy Hoy (@amyhoy) December 27, 2015
This means studying, comparing — and yes, even copying — the solutions of the top 5%. Funny then, that we seem to have innumerable ways to avoid saying, “I copied what works.” Best practices, patterns, conventions, and of course, inspiration. Any terminology will do to keep the creative mystique; omne ignotum pro magnifico.
We’d be better off admitting how beneficial it is to stand on the shoulders of giants. Scott Berkun drives this point home by arguing that it’s not shameful to use an idea “proudly found elsewhere”:
The key reason people look to reinvent things is that they don't know what's already been done. Ignorance, one way or another, is the leading cause of wasted effort everywhere. People who don't spend time studying the problems they're trying to solve are bound to reinvent something, and likely not nearly as well …
Instead of driving minions into further brainstorming sessions, it would be wise to ask: Who else has tried to solve this problem? Can we learn from what they have done?
“Travel widely, in both time and space,” wrote Paul Graham. Comparison can unearth time-tested solutions that solve age-old problems; it can even lead to old solutions solving new problems. Old books can teach new tricks.
The point isn’t to limit yourself or to default to borrowed ideas, the point is you should conserve your time, energy, attention, and creativity for opportunities with high upsides. Areas of stability matter because they free you up to take risks on what counts.
Case (almost) closed
I’ve played the role of defense attorney for comparison, so here’s where I admit its faults: Yes, constant benchmarking of results will leave you feeling like the perpetual silver medalist. Keeping up with the Joneses is a surefire way to always show up a day late and a dollar short.
But I think it’s unfair to let the radical usurp the reasonable. Averting your gaze — “never comparing yourself to others” — might save your ego, but comes at the cost of stifling an irreplaceable source of learning. In an era where so much is shared, it’d be a shame to let fear of comparison drive your head into the sand.