Stay above the fray, don't compare yourself with others
Life isn't a 100-meter sprint that you race to win. It's a marathon that you run to reach the finishing point.
In a recent chat with a former student of mine who is now at the university, I asked, "Do you still stress about exams?"
He, like a majority of his ilk, tended to be anxious despite a high level of intelligence and an incredible list of achievements.
"It's better," he said. "Now, I don't get to know what others are scoring. All the results are announced privately online. So the pressure of competition does not exist. I am pushing myself to do the best I can."
"Bingo!" I exclaimed. But my elation at his revelation was partial. It indicated that what eased the pressure a bit was his ignorance about others' performances. Will he be pushed to the edge in a different scenario? When he confessed that it would be a challenge to not feel pressured when you look around and see where others are standing in comparison, I felt it was time to hark back to an old life lesson that he had probably forgotten.
'Life isn't a 100-meter sprint that you race to win. It's a marathon that you run to reach the finishing point.'
It is a personal maxim gleaned from experience after surviving a prolonged period of stubborn self-doubt and inadequacy. Initially, as a writer, I was intimidated by the proficiency of others in the field, both among immediate peers and distinguished writers. For some time, seized by paranoia I had shunned reading. It made me compare my writing with others and allowed doubt to seep in and suggest if I had it in me to become a writer who could touch people's lives with stories.
I didn't expend my thoughts and energy on what I could accomplish. Instead, all my attention was steered towards what others were doing with their diverse competencies. So mislaid was I by my comparative assessment that the proverbial writer's block became a frightening reality. This was several years ago.
And then, the realisation donned - 'You are your own competition. You are running to touch the finish line at your pace. Not before or after others.' That's probably when my writing fell into the groove, because now I was writing not to outshine anyone, but to be the best I could be for the people I wrote for. The thought that I have to be a better writer today than I was yesterday has since guided my journey as an author.
As my student rightly pointed out, it is a challenge to remain untouched by the projected glories of people around. 'To excel by comparison' is an idea that is fundamentally ingrained in us from our growing up years, primarily by the academic systems that favour competition through rankings. Our mental faculties are tuned to how far others have come than to where we are in our own journeys. We are constantly looking over our shoulder, worried that we might be overtaken.
By doing this, we are unwittingly authorising others to define and shape our lives. We get tossed around until we are sucked into the whirlpool of influences. Our identity becomes so fluid that we lose our bearings. Driven by these forces, at some point, we become aliens to ourselves. Mental stress settles in and depression follows suit.
Why are we doing this disservice to ourselves?
Consider this. If we are doing reasonably well for ourselves, if we have earned respect with our good deeds, if we can slip into sleep at night in a trice, if we are healthy, then should it matter to us how accomplished the rest of the world is?
We are all in this endurance run with an aim to cover the longest distance clocking our best time. Many may trot past us as we run, many may lag behind. Fixing our attention on their pace will not take us to our destination. What will take us there is our stride, one confident step at a time. If, in the process, we finish first, let's take it as a bonus from life.
Asha Iyer Kumar is an author and creative writing coach based in Dubai
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