My family owned shoe stores in Newark, N.J., when I was growing up. I worked in their stores from the time I was seven years old. One day, my grandfather brought me outside to teach me an important lesson.
He pointed out the competitor down the street and told me to observe what he was doing. The man didn’t seem to be doing anything much, other than standing in front of his store for quite awhile watching the people come into our family’s store and walking out with bags of shoes.
“Michael,” my grandfather told me, “You see what that guy is doing? He’s watching our store instead of his own. He’s angry that nobody is buying shoes from him. He’s too busy taking care of OUR business instead of his own. When you grow up, run your own store, and don’t run or watch anyone else’s.”
Recently I was in the gym doing some resistance training with free weights. The fellow next to me was lifting as well. He was a bit older than me, and was lifting noticeably less weight—not that I’m a competitive body builder or anything close to that. I was doing bicep curls with about 95 pounds on the barbell. When he saw what I was lifting, he made an obvious grimace. I wondered what he was telling himself about himself, that led him to put down his barbell with 45 pounds of weight and attempt to lift a 100 pound barbell. He squeezed himself into my lift, my body, my muscles, my experience, and guess what? He immediately got down on himself, had to run my store, lift my weights and sure enough, he injured himself. Lao Tzu observed, “When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you.”
Sure there’s a time to be competitive with others. Running a race? Are you in a contest? Got a store up the block from another? Competing for a promotion? There’s a time to compete and there’s a time not to compete. Most of the time, it’s the time not to compete. But most of the time, most people see it differently. They are busy competing, if not against others, then against themselves.
As my nephew, Parker Mantell, observed in his commencement address to Indiana University in 2014, “Ray Charles couldn’t see but he could play…and FDR couldn’t walk, but he ran.” It’s been observed that doubt kills more dreams than failure ever has. Compare yourself to others at your own peril. Ray Charles and FDR didn’t compare…they flourished by focusing on their own stores, by lifting their own weights, by focusing on their own uniqueness.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do better, executing carefully constructed intentions and goals, to become the best you can and were meant to be, to strive to be better tomorrow than you were today. It’s another to compete against yourself, with all of the negativity, labels and name calling, and personal put-downs that go with it, and potential for real injury.
In all of the years I worked in my family’s shoe stores, I never saw anyone try to actually wear someone else’s shoes. It’d feel uncomfortable, wouldn’t fit, and could even be a bit dangerous. Yet, with the idea of not feeling good about oneself, of wanting to live someone else’s life, of making other people heroes whom you worship, of not comparing yourself only to yourself, people seem to want to walk in the shoes of others.
It’s been said that at 20, we worry about what others think of us and at 40, we don’t care what others think of us. As someone who has passed 60, my friends and I now realize that nobody was thinking about us to begin with. So why give in to the distraction of comparing yourself to others? They weren’t created for your purpose and you weren’t created for theirs. Their shoes don’t fit. Leave your feet alone. They get you where you were meant to go, if you’d understand that.
The best place to start a self-improvement plan is to see the gifts and talents and skills you have. Criticizing yourself and complaining against yourself because you aren’t lifting the heaviest weights, running the fastest, aren’t voted most likely to succeed or don’t have more customers in your store than the competitor has in his store up the block, only feeds the negative and holds you back.
Are you thinking, “OMG Dr. Mantell has described me perfectly”?
Then STOP. That’s Stop when you see the negative label you just laid on yourself. Take a breath, then Observe the feelings in your body and the thoughts in your head. Last, Proceed and move on free of the despair.
Here’s how I coach athletes, business leaders and everyday folks who suffer from their own “compare and despair” thinking. I ask them to answer these questions fully and carefully:
- Who are you? Focus on being the best YOU, not a second rate someone else.
- What’s it take for you to unpack the genuine, authentic you?
- Don’t DIE. Huh? That means, don’t Demand, Insist and Expect that YOUR performance be better or even match the person with whom you are running or working out.
- Listen to the fixed beliefs you have about yourself and replace them with truer beliefs
- Enjoy your time in the gym, at work and in your home life. You can only be the best you that you can be.