Fork in the Road: Failure by comparison
Credit: SERGEY NIVENS / THINKSTOCK
Success - the term is loaded with meaning. Despite what the world of business and self-help may tell you, there is no single correct definition, as success is a subjective.
Social comparison – we all engage in it. It helps us define our status by referencing others in our peer groups.
If you’re feeling down about yourself, social comparison can provide you with a healthy boost of self-esteem. Why else would we be so fascinated with how celebrities look without the enhancement of makeup and Photoshop? It removes the illusion that they are a superior class.
Humans do not like feeling as though they are average. Social comparison therefore acts as a means of validation or motivation.
After all, should one see peers excelling, it may motivate to seek greater personal and professional satisfaction. Where social comparison becomes problematic is when it feeds into a culture of cutthroat competition in which individuals will do whatever it takes to get ahead of others and when it creates unrealistic expectations of what you should achieve, particularly in reference to various junctures in your life.
A friend of mine posted on Facebook that he feels like a failure. He stated that nothing has seemed to go right for him lately despite his best efforts, and he feels little motivation to continue pursuing his passions.
Following his post there was a litany of comments offering support and encouragement, and while I was tempted to do the same, I thought: Had he ever asked himself by whose standards he had failed?
While the emotion fuelling his aforementioned sentiment is valid, his cognitive rationale is actually flawed for two important reasons.
First, a series of failures at a single point in your life or surrounding a single aspect of your life does not define you as a failure overall.
Marilyn Monroe was rejected by several modelling agencies and movie production houses for not having a memorable look before she got her big break. We all fail – it’s how we handle them that defines if we are failures.
If you allow yourself to wallow in misery and never gain back the confidence to try again, you fail yourself as new opportunities will always be available.
Second, if he had put forth his best effort but things didn’t work out, he is not to blame nor is he a failure. Sometimes the answer from the universe is simply a “no” to which we cannot hold ourselves personally accountable.
In my own life, there have been instances at which I’ve sincerely given it my all but have inevitably been confronted by the proverbial glass ceiling. While failure in any situation is upsetting, if I know I’ve tried my best, that’s truly all I can do. No one is ever fully in control or has influence on the outcome.
If, on the other hand, after much reflection, one acknowledges there is room for improvement and could have tried harder, this acknowledgment alone removes the failure connotation. It instead turns the situation into one for personal growth and development, which, as we know in the world of psychological maturity, is always an indication of success.
Success – the term is loaded with meaning. Despite what the world of business and selfhelp may tell you, there is no single correct definition, as success is a subjective.
Success for one person could be accumulating a great deal of wealth, while for someone living in an impoverished country, it could merely be surviving one more day without access to food and clean drinking water.
It is no one’s right to tell you what you should achieve in your life by various age-related milestones according to some arbitrary definition of what constitutes a successful life.
If you’re not married by the time you’re 30, but you’re happily single – fantastic. If you are perfectly content working in retail management for the rest of your days, that’s great. If you are a career-oriented woman who has never desired motherhood, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
All of these choices reflect what values you hold as paramount. All of these choices represent your personal views of success.
While Western society has long tried to prescribe what its citizens should be accomplishing by certain times in their lives, these prescriptions are unfair, unrealistic and outdated.
They have not been altered to match our current socioeconomic climate. They have not been altered to incorporate changed social norms with regard to women in the workplace or variations on the traditional family unit.
But most importantly, these prescriptions are based on a fatal flaw: they assume we all have the same starting place in life and the same access to resources.
So try something different the next time you engage in social comparison. Look not for evidence that you should be jealous of others and look not for evidence that you are failing in some capacity. Instead, reflect on the successes of others with kindness and positivity and ask yourself whether their successes represent successes you too would value in your own life.
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