I recently finished 12 Rules For Life – An Antidote to Chaos and reviewed it. Typical of all of my other book reviews, I don’t judge the content so much inside of the review of the book. I might as well be telling you how to think. My main concerns in book reviews are to determine whether or not the book is digestible and useful especially in the context of self-help. When I want to take some of the content and talk about it, i’ll branch that off into another blog, and that’s what we’re doing today.
When I first read rule 4 , which is…
“Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, do not compare yourself to who someone else is today.”
My first thought when I read that was about social media, which not only tricks people into breaking the rule but adds special little nasty tricks of its own. Our phones and other devices absorb us into a kabuki version of reality, where you only see the bright white mask that others want you to see. Everything else is blacked out and can’t be seen in the dim lighting of the theater. People chase likes, re-blogs, up-votes; our most popular social platforms are engineered to get the participants to seek validation from others.
Now I’m not saying these can’t be useful metrics for content creators. Sure, I take a look at where my likes and my follows sit, but I follow rule 4, I only compare those numbers to where they were when the blog started, or where they were a month ago. That was actually a foundational principle of managing this blog. I wouldn’t compare myself to people that already had 40,000 followers, I was concerned about just getting to 5. You’re not going to do yourself any services comparing yourself to pewdiepie the day your YouTube channel starts, but for many of us the comparisons run deeper and more insidious than just numbers of likes, follows, and shares. You compare your real life to the carefully curated profiles of family and friends or even strangers on social media. This is the real life only you know about, not just the darker moments but the darker thoughts. You’re not just violating rule four, you’re comparing yourself against people that don’t actually exist.
Social media profiles are the photoshopped versions of someones life—many times literally. Many highlight only the good and hide the bad. The ones that include the bad nevertheless hide the shameful. There’s a difference between announcing a breakup and announcing that it was your fault too. Generally, when people share bad moments on social media it’s for the same reason they share the good, for affirmation, and it comes with the same filters. Comparing yourself to these people, even people you trust, is like comparing yourself physically to some photoshopped super model on the cover of Sports Illustrated or Vogue or, well, pick your poison.
I can hear some of you now, “but people do compare themselves to supermodels”, I know, that’s the point, it’s ridiculous. If you need to work on your thighs work on your thighs but don’t do it to look like the digitally altered version of someone else. Do it because you want better thighs. That goes for non-physical qualities too. These people don’t have the same life you have. You know what’s important to you, to uniquely you, don’t suppress those priorities to be more like someone else, you’ll just end up not accomplishing the things that are important to you. That doesn’t mean you don’t stop improving, that doesn’t mean you don’t aim high, it means that you should be aiming at your own targets, and not someone else’s.
Maybe you decided not to go to college because starting a family was just that important to you. Maybe you have several wonderful children as a result, and maybe you’re a little jealous of that graduation cap toss picture your friend just posted. Maybe you aren’t seeing the pile of student loan debt behind that cap, maybe you aren’t seeing the adderall abuse that led there that has to be dealt with, maybe they’re absolutely fine and successful cleanly and didn’t fall into those traps, but they may just be looking at your children when they’re 35 and involved in their career and asking themselves where the time went and wondering why they don’t have theirs yet. Maybe they don’t want a family at all. Would that be the life you try to emulate after deciding you wanted several children? Maybe you come to feel sorry for them that they don’t even want a family, maybe that’s pitiable to you. Life is a series of choices. Make sure your choices reflect your goals, make sure the improvements you make to your life are about getting you to where you want to go.
You have things to work on. We all have things to work on. I could exercise more, but I’m better than I was yesterday. I’m 60 pounds better than I was many yesterdays ago, and I did that by comparing myself to what my scale said yesterday and not to someone else’s scale. I did that by ignoring my Fitbit’s explicit pleas to let it compare me to other people—Talk about kneecapping the usefulness of your own product. I celebrate the fact that i’m 60 pounds better off than I used to be, I still look forward to further improvements to my weight, I’m not where I want to be yet, but I can look back and go, yeah, I’m on the way there. I’m not looking at Lou Ferrigno pictures and going, why bother I’ll never be that guy. Well I really will never be that guy, and there are parts of Lou’s life that weren’t so great. I can be happy knowing that my life is getting better on my own terms, I can be happy that Emily finds me more physically desirable than she used to and that it’s the result of my work. Who doesn’t want to be more physically attractive to their spouse? Mission fucking accomplished man, and I get to make it even better in the future? Awesome.
That’s another reason for the rule. You will never exhaust all the avenues available to you to improve. You’re going to have to cherry pick, eventually you’re going to run out of time, everyone does. You can’t be everything to everyone, you can’t even be everything to yourself. Social media can tempt us with the idea that it’s possible. We have this flood of information about all the wonderful things other people are doing. Are you amalgamating all those things into an unreasonable ideal? Pick the things that matter in your life and orient your life and behavior around those, because you don’t get the option of everything, and if you see someone that looks like they’ve got everything I can guarantee you’re looking at a facade. You’re looking at their kabuki representation to the world. Rule 4 will help you stave off the resentment and jealousy that can trap you in the way that you currently are. You can use those emotions to freeze your life, sit still, and then blame others for the lack of improvement. No one is immune to that, I left Facebook entirely for that reason. My only twitter account is the one I use to promote this blog, I don’t use Insta, I don’t keep up with the Kardashians, and I don’t know anything about bad Tinder experiences. I also don’t seem to have problems with unstable relationships or keeping friends around for the long term. Are those related? Heck if I know but I certainly think they are.
Now, I think social media definitely makes these issues more prominent in our lives but this is by no means a new problem. The comic strip “Keeping up with the Joneses” debuted in 1913, over a century ago. The grass was greener on the other side of the fence long before we could use Google Earth to look at thousands of fences. Women were comparing themselves to cover girls since magazine covers were a thing. It’s a really old trap, maybe as old as humanity itself, maybe as old as lobsters, who knows. The Bible is thousands of years old and warns us not to covet all manners of things, especially other people’s wives. That has everything to do with wanting what others have, or at least fooling ourselves into thinking that we do. Problem is we have easy access to pictures of other people’s wives, we have easy access to depictions of all the greatest parts of other people’s lives, it’s everywhere, and they have complete control over whether or not we see the other side of that, and the vast majority of us chose not to. Don’t think of someone’s social media life as anything other than a fiction, a photoshop filter at best. Remember rule 4.