A friend once showed me a graph of his salary progression over the years (yes, he’s that person), it looked like those generic graphs you see on cartoons: smooth, up, and to the right. My heart sank, is that what mine was supposed to look like? Because let me tell you, the best way to describe my career is: turbulent.
If you’ve ever had that feeling, whether you’re checking an old classmate’s LinkedIn and see they’ve climbed the corporate ladder like a ninja warrior, or your friend tells you their incredibly high salary, you’re not alone.
Society has conditioned us to compare ourselves to others. If you’re held back a year at school, then you “weren’t that bright”, if you didn’t get an internship at college, “you’re not good enough for those companies”. Awards continuously praise people based on accomplishments at certain ages (like really Forbes?) as if it is impressive if someone does something at 29, but not 30.
And then there are the numbers we are assigned throughout our lives: GPAs, standardized tests, etc. Why are we pitting different people against each other? Why do we have to excel in every single thing we do? Does the math major looking to be an astronaut need to be great at art? Does the Olympic gold medalist in running have to love organic chemistry? Absolutely not, and yet they are penalized when applying to schools or jobs for having a lower score when that topic is not relevant (or even interesting) to them.
So here we are, a world of insecure adults, looking for validation through comparison. It’s a never ending game of ‘Who’s better than me? And who am I better than?’
So how do we shift our mindset after years of playing this relentless game?
First off, start by being proud of what you’ve accomplished. No matter where you are in life, you’ve grown, learned, and expanded your mindset, and that’s something no one should take for granted. Write a list of everything you're proud of and when you're not feeling great about where you are, go back and read it to yourself. This doesn’t have to be limited to career accomplishments, it can be anything that makes you proud. Did you run a marathon? Learn how to manage your anxiety? Started a volunteer group? Keep that list handy, because you did that and should always be reminded!
Second, use comparison to catapult yourself forward by celebrating your peers that are absolutely crushing it! If you’re in their field (or interested in it) and you're impressed by what they’ve accomplished, reach out and connect with them. People love helping others and sharing their stories, so ask them about their experience. Do they like what they do? How did they break into the field? What advice do they have for someone with your goals? Do this enough times and not only are you learning, but you’re also networking.
Lastly, write out a list of what you value in a career, the things that really fuel you and get you excited every single day. It’ll look very different if you care about compensation and being in a big company vs. if you want to build something from the ground up. Values can change over time, but for right now, you need to refer to this list for every career decision you make. If your values are misaligned, you’ll continuously be struggling to find something that’s not there. Spend time exploring different areas that you are interested in until you find something that fits you (Pro tip, if you’re at a company that’s toxic to you, get out ASAP!).
Comparison makes it very difficult to focus on yourself. It’s a tough battle, but once you conquer it, things will feel easier. I’m not trying to say I’m this zen queen that loves every aspect of my career (honestly there are days I feel so behind). What I’m trying to say is, my career hasn’t exactly been linear, but I’m really proud of myself and I love what I do and who I work with. I’ve explored a lot, and every experience, bad or good, has taught me something and shaped who I am as a person.
You can stray and explore and discover without having to feel pressure to hit arbitrary milestones. You can take a year off and find yourself. You can decide to be a stay at home parent for a while. You can quit your fancy consulting job and start a bakery. You can do whatever feels right for you, even if you find out it was a mistake later. Because you don’t have to have kids by 30, make partner by 40, and fly to mars by 50 (so relax, Elon).
Set yourself free from these expectations and chase your dreams fearlessly.