Under Pressure: Playing the Comparison Game
Engagements. Promotions. New jobs, new houses, new cars. It’s not a new phenomenon that your mid-to-late 20s are filled with such announcements from friends near and far – I remember my brother at the age I am now telling me when the barrage of wedding invites began, every weekend another event to attend.
Those of our closest, we get first-hand. For those further afield, further removed from our current social circles, the news comes to us in different ways. Some of this news we still get the old-fashioned way, passed through the grapevine. Have you heard…? But the difference between how most of this information would have been discovered ten, twenty years ago as compared to today, is that we get everything as it happens, online. Your friend’s cousin’s boyfriend who you met once at a party for five minutes? You now know about the all-expenses work trip he was sent on to Dubai, whether you really cared to or not.
We watch in a seemingly constant cycle as our peers take the next steps in their adult lives. And with every announcement, it’s seemingly impossible not to stop and consider it in comparison to your own life. You watch another friend get engaged and consider the awful first date you went on the week before. You finish filling out another job application as your friend gets promoted. You wonder, the thought a relentless echo in your head, whether you shouldn’t be there already. Whether you’re somehow falling behind or failing by not being there yet.
When you add in a move to another country, you also add new levels of pressure on yourself. The first is the happiness pressure. Back in November, I wrote about the expectation to enjoy oneself all the time when living abroad: as though I should be living in some kind of permanent holiday state, as opposed to the day-to-day grind of normal life that includes the popular mundane tasks of paying bills, grocery shopping and cooking dinner. The idea that if I do not appear to be happy or exhilarated or busy at all times – well, then, why did I move in the first place? Couldn’t I just as well have paid bills, grocery shopped and cooked dinner in the U.K.?
Well, yes, I could have. And I would have had good days and bad days, just as I have here. Every day of your life cannot be good – but there can be something good in every day. And sometimes just the act of waiting at a streetcar stop and catching the CN Tower glimmering high on above can be a good point in my day, however mundane it may seem.
On top of that comes the existing pressures described earlier, further multiplied by having moved. Although not the case for everyone, the move had the effect of throwing me back down the ladder to square one in terms of my career. An unfortunate part of the industry I work in is that a large amount of the opportunity afforded to you is related to who you know – this can certainly work in your favour over time but landing in a fresh landscape means getting in at the bottom level and starting the contact list from scratch. I got a small leg-up very early on thanks to a colleague but it could only take me so far.
The feeling of falling behind has been a persistent stress since my university days. Taking a year out to change my degree meant I graduated a year later than many of my friends. By the time I was stepping out of the academic world, friends had already moved away, been in jobs for a year on a steady salary, or met long-term partners. The six months I spent in a dead-end reception job following graduation didn’t help, every day feeling like another year that I wasn’t achieving anything. Let’s think about that for a moment. I was working full-time forty hour weeks and gaining administrative experience that has actually helped me in gaining future work – but I felt like I wasn’t achieving anything.
Toronto has been ripe with beneficial experiences for me. I have a growing contact list and the invaluable benefit of having people starting to get to know me: to understand what I have to offer, and why hiring me is A Good Idea. But for every boost, and for the direction this experience has given me, I have spent countless hours making ends meet through a variety of odd jobs. I’ve served cask ale for almost twelve hours straight, I’ve moved more chairs and tables than I ever want to count, I’ve processed dozens of contracts, and I’ve rolled a lot of posters. I mean, a lot. Over the past few weeks alone, having finished up a three-month contract job in my actual industry, I’ve been bouncing between two different jobs and spending whatever time is left with my head buried in freelance work.
I’m nearly 25 years old and I don’t feel like I have a career. People ask me what I do and I say I work in film and that I’m also a writer. Oh, where do you work? I rub a hand over the back of my neck. The explanation isn’t only long and tedious to repeatedly explain – but it also seems like a disappointing admission compared to how the conversation started out. Even to call myself a writer some days feels like a baldfaced lie: I haven’t published anything in almost two years and my last novel might have been read by a hundred people at best.
But to put those kind of pressures on myself is to discount all the things I have accomplished at a relatively young age. Years of film festival experience and a managerial position I will return to at a major film festival this summer. Three books under my belt, whether published or not, and a fourth on the go. A degree, volunteering experience, and a head for numbers. And, still, I feel like I’m standing on the first square of the board waiting for my turn to roll the die.
The comparison game has no winners as long as you’re still playing. While I look at a friend and envy their stable job and its professional development, they might look at someone else and wish for their lifestyle, and so on.
Rather than waste time thinking of all the things I don’t have or haven’t done, why not push that focus onto my goals? The only person I should be competing against is the version of myself I was yesterday, and the day before that, and the one before that. To play anything else is to set myself up to lose a game that doesn’t even exist.
I wrote this post and then came back to it the next day and was struck by the tone. For all that I might have bad days, when it comes to my writing, I strive to be more reflective than pessimistic. Having written this post, I spent the rest of the day in a bit of a bad mood, and it didn’t sit well with me that my own writing had left me in that headspace. It encouraged me to think a bit further and brought me to one more thought that felt relevant to share in regards to this topic.
A few years ago, I wrote down a thought and tacked it up to my mirror in my flat in Edinburgh. It read: be kind to yourself today and every day. This little piece of paper came with me to Toronto and is currently tacked to the mirror in my bedroom. Above, I wrote that the only person I should compete against is myself and while striving to be a better version of yourself is something we can all do, I also think that sets yourself up to be even less kind to yourself than we all are already.
So, yes, strive for your goals and to become a better version of yourself than you were yesterday. But also, perhaps more importantly, perhaps more so than anything else: be kind to yourselves, and to one another.