Are ambition and compulsive comparison with others inextricably linked? David LoSchiavo
Last week I read in the paper that a longstanding competitor had had breakthrough success. Scanning the article, brow furrowed, I sizzled with resentment, jealous. Lying awake at 2am the next morning, my rational voice said, “Whatever this person does or doesn’t achieve has no impact on my life.” Then my emotional side kicked in and I rolled over, sweating with frustration. “But it’s not fair!”
Jealously, I suspect, affects most of us. The need to appear successful at all times is rife in the start-up world. Our sector thrives on ambition and hype. Everyone crashes from time to time and, when we do, it’s easy to feel as if we don’t measure up. The mental health of entrepreneurs is increasingly becoming a concern. Three high-profile founders involved in the Las Vegas Downtown Project died by suicide in 12 months. It was discovered afterwards that each of their companies was struggling.
Recently, I attended MaiTai in Maui, the ultimate start-up conference where glamour and success are as potent as the cocktails. Everyone at MaiTai is successful, smart, young and athletic. It’s full of gorgeous twentysomethings who’ve built multi-million dollar companies, often after winning an international sporting title. It was hard not to compare myself and sense that I was lacking something.
I confided my feelings to a few of the other MaiTai attendees. To my surprise and relief, they all said they were struggling with the same thing. One successful entrepreneur said he thought something was wrong with him because, unlike his friends, he had never started a company that IPO’d. A woman who could be a model if she wasn’t an entrepreneur said she felt intimidated by how athletic everyone was, and didn’t want to wear her bikini at the beach. The most successful person at the conference, who had built a world-changing piece of technology, said he felt old compared with people like Mark Zuckerberg, who achieved more at a younger age. This sense of inadequacy ruined my experience of MaiTai. A haze of agitation followed me around, preventing me from relaxing and having fun. With my self-esteem under threat, I set to work even harder on Hey You, so that next year I would fit in.
The comparison game
Back at my desk, compelled to drive my business faster, I couldn’t help but wonder: are ambition and compulsive comparison with others inextricably linked? Why do we always grade ourselves against more accomplished people? What about the very top? Do Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg go to bed at night fretting about how Einstein or Darwin contributed more to humanity than they? At school, I used to compare myself with Nicole, who could beat me in cross-country racing. This drove me to run faster. At university, I worked hard to get higher grades than Emma. Now I look to other entrepreneurs who have built bigger or more striking companies. There’s always someone ahead.
Even though jealousy hurts, it can’t be all bad. Every negative feeling contains a hidden lesson if you are prepared to open it up and investigate. If I didn’t care that Nicole ran faster than me, I might not have trained so hard. Even on my jog this morning as I contemplated this article, I felt a twang of frustration when an older person who appeared to be less fit overtook me on the track. Jealousy is a natural emotion with which entrepreneurs are turbocharged. It’s one of the forces that drives us. Reflecting on MaiTai and my experience fretting at 2am, here’s what I plan to do next time jealousy flares.
Focus on what’s important
What my nemesis or the people at MaiTai achieve has no impact on my life. Some time ago, I wrote a list of what’s important to me. When I start to feel jealous, I go back to my list and remind myself what I should be focusing on.
Be grateful that I’m wired to be competitive
Sometimes, I get angry with myself for feeling inadequate. It doesn’t solve anything, if indeed there is anything to solve. It can be good to be competitive, and our drive to compete also drives humanity forward – to do things better, faster and more efficiently. Being competitive means there is a good chance that I’ll contribute in some way.
Remember that most other people share similar sentiments
I was shocked to discover that even the most successful folks at MaiTai felt threatened by the success of others. The start-up ecosystem in Australia is booming; every week brings another big winner. But for every success there are dozens of failures, and often that’s not because the team was less smart or didn’t work as hard. Some businesses are luckier than others. We must recognise that success creates jealousy and for most of us, this can be hard to process.