By Ianni Tan (18S03C)
What – or should I say who – came to mind when you clicked on this article?
Yes, the point that nobody’s perfect, nobody can have it all, it is okay to be imperfect has been made again, and again, and again. A quick Google search yields numerous inspirational quotes in cheery fonts and pages of articles for your reading pleasure.
It’s almost like one of those cliché sayings you’ll see plastered on plastic water bottles, stamped on PowerPoint slides during Civics Classes, or printed out on a bunch of motivational posters.
These statements are all undeniably valid. But what makes us roll our eyes and sigh under our breath is the fact that we seem to be surrounded by a sea of individuals who embody this very definition. They are literal living proof that yes, it is indeed possible for people to reach those peaks of excellence.
We watch as these people soar overhead; we gasp in awe as they glide with ease. They never seem to run out of fuel, well-oiled engines revved and propelling them to greater heights.
We look at their victorious shouts of glee, and then we look back at ourselves – we watch as our gears don’t quite cooperate with our intentions; we try to take control as we watch ourselves drift off our meticulously planned trajectories.
These ideas (that nobody will have it all) don’t actually stop us from comparing ourselves to those around us. This doesn’t necessarily refer only to the academic domain – things like one’s personality, weight, appearances, circle of friends, confidence, wit, artistic skills, athletic ability and so on are also commonly used as yardsticks for comparison.
This brings with it a whole horde of consequences.
We wind up dismissing other people’s problems by virtue of their strengths, or their relative performance as compared to ours. We unintentionally push their problems away… and push them away while we’re at it too. Our words may invalidate their worries and, unfortunately, make ourselves appear rather dismissive and unsympathetic.
This is potentially damaging to the relationship, since they will be less inclined to rely on us for the support that they need. For instance, someone who performs well might fear underperforming, and is met by the response “Aiyah, you’re so smart, how can you be worried? You’re not failing…”. But high achievers are just as prone as we are to experience troubles themselves.
On a more personal level, when we compare ourselves with others, we feel inadequate. Our self-esteem, logically enough, takes a dip – feelings of failure set in, and our motivation to change things for the better plummet too. It could possibly, unintentionally enough, kickstart a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Socially, we tend to be intimidated and withdraw from those whom we perceive as being ranked above us, thus losing a chance to make new friends and learn from them. Funnily enough, whenever somebody asks me about my CCA, I frequently get this response: “omg Press? <string of names> is in your CCA right!!! They’re so good! So scary!”. One person even shuddered (whether it was for dramatic effect or in some form of fear is beyond me), but the intention doesn’t matter – it reflects the same idea anyway.
Yes, my batchmates are incredibly eloquent and insightful. I must admit that I was initially intimidated after seeing the list of batchmates in my CCA. However, after a year of laughing, joking and writing with them, I’ve come to realise that they are so much more than what they are known for, and all the labels that we have subconsciously slapped on them.
Self-comparison doesn’t necessarily need to be damaging. Objective comparisons are useful – for example, having a single digit percentile is terrifying, humiliating and will unarguably feel terrible, especially when comparing your score to someone else’s (the thought of being able to add your percentile with your classmate’s to get 100 is as amusing as it is horrifying). But very objectively speaking, it is a call to action. It can allow us to realise that something’s not working, that you need to change the way you’re doing things.
Of course, we can’t always be 100% objective. That being said, when we have a greater degree of objectivity, it will also give us the clearer vision we need to critically and calmly assess ourselves and our own situations.
And then we’ll probably have to know that ideally, our abilities do not define our worth. Acknowledging this doesn’t mean that we are refusing to better ourselves. You don’t necessarily have to be defined by whether or not you can dance, sing, lead a crowd, do differential equations, take H3s, juggle many commitments and so on… which might make the comparison somewhat less suffocating and a lot more productive.
With this comes having to accept our weaknesses. If you can’t see what the true problem is, solving it will be an incredibly challenging task. It’s like shooting arrows at a target board with your eyes closed. We may ask ourselves, “If others can do it, why can’t I?” That may hold true in some cases and can be used as a form of motivation in the long run, but in other cases, we are being unreasonable with ourselves.
In reality, we are all different individuals with different backgrounds. Different abilities and situations require varying approaches. Everybody has their own natural inclinations. To quote a batchmate, we cannot simply look at our incapability of doing something as a sign that we can never do it. Rather, we need to accept that we are unable to do it now, and make the effort to improve. To quote John Green’s Turtles All The Way Down: your now is not your forever. You can always learn, grow and improve.
On a separate note, we must tamper our comparisons with a pinch – actually, a whole spoonful – of realism. We may see those around us as in a blissful, utopian state, but in reality, everybody must carry their own cross. I’ve heard stories of Deans’ Listers not knowing what they want to do in life, and social butterflies who feel out-of-place.
Everybody experiences moments of weaknesses and struggles with their own flaws. We just don’t see it, and we cannot expect ourselves to. This is similar to how we see reputed singers’ and actors’ happiest moments on Instagram, or whatever platform they frequent. But behind the scenes, unless they choose to reveal it to fans, we don’t see their anguished moments where they’re weathering storms on their own and where they question themselves and their choices.
They are only human, and so are we.
It’s worth acknowledging that this is much easier said than done. Many of us would have seen quotes and articles and comments of a similar vein. But it is not a simple, brainless, effortless recipe. This isn’t some ez-bake-cake with a one-step recipe. You don’t empty the contents of these sentences into your brain and then magically expect everything to change. To claim otherwise would likely be a sweeping statement, an overly-optimistic oversimplification.
Sometimes, it takes time. Or a helping hand. Or the addressing of other underlying assumptions and personal issues. Whatever it is, there will probably be a mix of bad and good days. Progress won’t be a homogenous constant, and that’s okay.
I don’t quite know how to end this article – and to a certain extent, that’s almost fitting, because self-comparison isn’t an issue that may completely end at a certain point. There isn’t necessarily a definite end to it, perhaps, it’s how we deal with it as healthily as we can, as we grow and live, that matters more than its presence.