Don’t fall into the trap of comparing your career progression to the successes of others. Here’s how to tame your inner critic.
A couple of weeks ago, I had professional business photos taken at my home. I always dread photos because I am not a natural smiler. Even when I was a kid, when I posed for photos, I didn’t look natural—I always had a fake, forced smile.
Typically, even as an adult, it takes the photographer fifty or more photos to capture a more natural smile from me. (Wine helps too. Watch this video for my thoughts from immediately after the shoot.)
I posted on Facebook about my dislike of getting photos taken, and several of my friends commented that I always look great in photos. The point is, I only post the photos that look natural. No one else gets to see the back end of the photo shoot—the countless poses and angles and shots the photographer took. You only see what made it onto my website or Facebook page. There were over sixty photos from the recent shoot, and only a handful were decent enough to share with the world. My friends saw the “front stage”—the one good photo that made the cut, not the backstage—the two-hour photo shoot of awkward poses and fake smiles.
It’s the same for many other things in life. We see the front stage of someone else’s life—the success, awards, well-behaved kids or amazing vacations—but we don’t see the backstage—the pain, struggle, disappointments and hard work. What we see is often carefully curated, or at least doesn’t reflect the backstory or journey it took to get them there.
Have you ever felt like you’re behind where you want to be in your career or life? Have you ever compared yourself to others? In my work with leaders, this is extremely common—in fact, I don’t think I have ever met a human who didn’t compare themselves to others at times and feel deflated.
Even with all the personal development work I have done over the years, I still find myself falling into this trap. I see someone who is where I want to be and feel frustrated that I am not there yet. Can you relate?
There are a few problems with this thinking:
- We are so focused on the gap between where we are and where we want to be that we feel deflated, discouraged and helpless. This fuels our inner critic and keeps us stuck. When you feel stuck, one of the best things you can do is take a moment to look back instead of forward. Looking back a few years, what have you accomplished? How have you specifically grown from where you were a few years ago? It’s more energizing and productive to think of how far you have come than how far you have to go. This keeps you in a positive mindset to keep working toward your goals. (You are not ignoring the future and your goals; you are simply breaking the pattern of comparing yourself to others and feeling overwhelmed because you aren’t yet where you want to be.) Beware of compare!
- We often don’t see what goes on behind the scenes or what it took for someone else to get to where they are. We see their front stage. Perhaps there is a leader in your organization whom you admire. This leader is highly respected and where you want to be in your career—in an influential executive role with a great team. Our tendency is to focus on where that person is now rather than on what it took to get there. We don’t see the years of hard work, learning, mistakes, classes, certifications and dedication that led that person to where they are today.
- Even people who seem successful and have it all together have challenges. No one has a perfect life. The successful leader who has had amazing professional success might have challenges in their personal life. When we compare ourselves to others, we tend to compare only the good parts, not the challenging parts. We don’t have an accurate and full picture of someone’s reality, so we are deluding ourselves into thinking others have it better than us. This crushes our spirit and motivation.
Everyone has a backstory. No one’s life is perfect and stress-free. Stay focused on your own vision for your future. It’s fine to gain inspiration from people who are where you want to be one day. But comparing yourself to their front stage will only fuel your inner critic and leave you feeling inadequate and insecure.
I believe we never reach our full potential in our lifetime. As we grow and achieve our goals, we create new goals that stretch our abilities and capabilities. It’s completely normal to fall into the trap of comparison. The key is to shift your mindset to use the information or image being presented as inspiration rather than discouragement.
The best way to build confidence is to take action. Become clear about your vision, create a plan with small steps—and then take the first step, then the next, then the next. Each time you accomplish a step, you are reinforcing to yourself that you can accomplish your goals. Each accomplishment will build your confidence, and before you know it, you’ll be achieving your goals and creating your own success.
Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CPCC, PHR, is a certified executive coach, leadership consultant and founder of CUES Supplier member Envision Excellence LLC in the Washington, D.C., area. Her mission is to create exceptional cultures by teaching leaders how to be exceptional. Maddalena facilitates management and executive training programs and team-building sessions and speaks at leadership events. Prior to starting her business, she was an HR executive at a $450 million credit union. Contact her at 240.605.7940 or email@example.com.