We all do it and we probably do it more than we’ll ever admit or even truly know. We see someone doing juuuuuust that much better than us at the same thing we’re trying and our brains go kablooey. It may seem harsh that I called you a weirdo for doing it in the title of this article. You may be thinking to yourself even, “Where does this guy get off. He probably does this type of thing just as much as me. Probably even more! He wrote a whole dang article about it!” To that, I would say three things in response: 1. You’re absolutely right. 2. That doesn’t make the behavior any less weird. 3. Please stop shouting.
But For Real, Where Does This Guy Get Off?
I’m currently in the thralls of a four-month coding boot camp. It’s designed to be step one in someone’s coding journey. No experience necessary baby! All aboard the learnin’ train. Before I started this program I was 85% certain computers ran on magic. Now I’m only like 40% computers run on magic. Thanks education!
IN A VACCUM, I‘d say I’m doing a-ok in this program. I could have done better at some of the tests. My projects look a little icky because styling has been the hardest thing to wrap my head around. I also have diagnosed ADHD so my study habits, naturally, leave a LOT to be desired. However, the most important thing to note is if the me right at this moment were to go back in time, sit down with my former self, and let him know all the cool coding stuff I have rattling around in my noodle, he’d probably say “Well golly gee future Adam you sure do know a lot.” And he’s right! I’ve learned a lot!
But here’s the hard part: no one measures themselves in a vacuum because no one lives in a vacuum. It’s incredibly hard to judge yourself on your own merits. In my program, there are a handful of classmates who seem to grasp the material in ways I cannot. I call these people The Smartos. They not only know the right syntax and proper form of some of the programming languages we’re learning, (the kind of gobbledygook I have to be glued to reference material to even get kind of right) they conceptually seem to understand why and how these methods work. And on top of all this, they are all wonderful compassionate people who will drop everything to walk me through material I don’t understand! The gall of these helpful and kind monsters!
And I compare myself to these people every day. They know something and I don’t. Therefore I have less value. Simple as that.
Here’s the thing though: just because I perceive someone to be a Smarto, doesn’t make me or anyone else a Dumbo. Our brains are made up of squishy electrical tubes that squirt brain juice and dictate our behavior. Each of us has a unique brain with different proportions of squishy wires and brain juice. Mine squirts ADHD juice all over for some annoying reason. This affects both how well we understand certain things better than others and why some things catch our interest and others don’t. I’m personally obsessed with tabletop board games. Opening the plastic of a new game and reading a rulebook gives me a dopamine rush I legitimately can’t get anywhere else. My brother who is close in age to me finds them boring and tedious but also finds golf exciting for reasons that are unclear to me despite it having been explained to me multiple times and even though it’s objectively the worst sport (don’t @ me). PEOPLE. ARE. DIFFERENT.
The most important thing to not lose sight of is this: people are going to be better at you at some stuff. You’re going to be better at other people at other stuff. That’s life and that’s ok. It’s important to tell ourselves this and give ourselves a break. We’re all doing our own thing on a big blue marble rattling around in space. It’s going to be fine. I do also realize this is all much easier said than done, but I would advise trying your best because comparing yourself to others is not only a fantastic way of bumming yourself out for absolutely no reason, it’s also counterproductive and can be quite literally destructive to you and your goals. Here’s a quick example:
A Story From My Pre-Coding Days
Before I went to coding school I was trying to be a comedian. I graduated with a degree in communication studies, which, fun fact: isn’t a real thing. I had no idea what I wanted to do the spring of my senior year. People always told me I was funny, and I’d just read Tina Fey’s book about Second City so I shrugged my shoulders and moved to Chicago.
The first six months were wonderful. I made some of the best friends I’ll ever have and had more fun than I think I’ll ever have again. I was 23 and taking improv classes with other dorks of varying ages. One guy in my first class even got all bashful at a bar one time and told me I was of the funniest people he’d ever met and he’d wanted to tell me that for a while. That sounds self-aggrandizing, but it will be an important detail later. I was working a crummy office job and seeing or being in bad improv/sketch/standup shows in dank bars every night. It owned bones.
But pretty soon some people from the circles I was in started climbing the ranks. They were making teams at some theaters that I wasn’t. They were putting out better stuff than me regularly. And instead of trying to do better myself I just kept telling myself, “Oh well they’ve got ‘it’ and I don't.” I started isolating myself and would go outperforming less and less. I would have sweaty anxiety attacks before classes or if I was in any kind of show. When I was around 25 I had a bad habit of googling the ages of comedians I liked and if they’d “made it” by the time they were my age I’d beat myself up about it for days. A lot of my friends started getting agents and booking commercial work and when I got around to doing that, I would get literal gasping for air panic episodes because I thought I had no value. I figured if I was any good I’d already have representation or “status” of some kind. I eventually had to stop checking social media because any time someone was putting on a show, it reminded me I should be doing more and I would get more panic attacks. Remember those aforementioned “best friends I’ll ever have”? I stopped keeping in touch with a bunch of them because they were, or I at least perceived them as, way ahead of me and therefore definitely thought I was a garbage human. Why would they want to talk to a garbage human? It was a self-perpetuating shame cycle and it got pretty bad.
My lowest point came when I was working the merch table at the UCB theater in LA. I was in my later 20’s, had been in LA for a few years, and was working an office job that was a nightmare. In all aspects, I was miserable and felt worthless. I was also BARELY performing for all the reasons mentioned above. A guy who was in my level one class in Chicago walked into the theater to see a show a friend of his was in. We hadn’t spoken in years. He recognized me and gave me a big hug. In catching up I learned someone famous (who you’ve probably heard of but I’m not goint to name here) saw one of his sketch shows in Chicago, was flying him out to LA to speak with agents. That day he’s been signed by one of the biggest commercial agents in Hollywood. He was that guy from the bar of the people in that first class who got all bashful and told me I was one of the funniest people he’d met in that bar. He asked me what I was getting up to in LA and I could feel my stomach literally tighten because I had to lie my way through saying “um I’ve got some irons in the fire.”
After my shift, I went home and I cried a whole bunch. All I kept thinking was this is someone who started out at the literal exact same time I did made it probably ten times farther than me because they kept making cool stuff and all I did was wallow around whenever someone did better than me and do close to nothing. I felt like a loser, and more importantly, a loser whose loserdom was his own fault.
Moral of the Story
I threw away most of my 20’s by comparing myself to everyone else around me. It was self-destructive both emotionally and physically. But here’s the biggest takeaway about this behavior of mine: It was dumb. Remember when I said I was looking at the age of big comedians I liked? Well those are the exceptions and not the rule. For every John Mulaney, there are a million funny people just chipping away at it having a good time, and making cool stuff for the fun of it. If genuine success comes out of that, even better! This is the ethos I’m trying to take into my coding boot camp. It’s the closest thing I’ve come to of those early days in improv class: just a bunch of really cool dorks doing nerd shit and being wonderful to each other.
What I’m trying to say at the end of the day is just make cool stuff that excites you. Other people might make similar but cooler stuff from time to time, and that’s ok and you should cheer them on. They’ll probably help you out if you asked because most people naturally like helping out! You can’t control the fact that as a human you have dumb competitive instincts, but you do get to control how you choose to deal with it. Everyone’s around you is also just trying their best. You can either let it get you down and let life slip away, or you can say “That’s dope that person’s kicking ass. I’m gonna try and also kick ass too.”
Everyone’s doing their own thing. Your value isn’t the work you put out. Don’t be a butthead to others for weird dumb reasons and more importantly don’t be a butthead to yourself. You’ll be fine. You’re doing fine.