Last week I took four flights for two days straight to get from the capital of Nepal to my hometown of Buffalo, New York. I packed up the backpack I'd been living out of for eight months, plopped back down into the middle of America and the middle of something that looks like most people's day-to-day reality.
I'm watching my dad go to work at 6 am like he's done for the past 40-something years, while my mom wakes up at 5 am to make his coffee and pack his lunch, like she's done for the past 30-something years. I'm talking to friends who work in offices by day and come home to boyfriends, dogs and sometimes kids by night. I went to the funeral of a family friend.
I'm (temporarily) back in the land where everyone goes through various amounts of schooling, reproduces and then works until they die. That's not necessarily a bad thing. It's pretty much the normal course of life. It's comfortable for a reason, and most people are perfectly happy to live that way.
I just don't happen to live like that, so back here, I have to answer everyone's questions: What do you do? How do you make money? How are you always traveling? Why are you always traveling? Don't you want to get married? Where are you going next?
There's something about being away, whether I'm living abroad for work or traveling for pleasure, that helps me stop comparing. I just live my own life, in my own way and wrote about it on my blog for the people who are curious. “Out there” I'm inspired, motivated and supported by people who have found similarly unconventional paths, so I'm happy to go about my business.
But then, I come home. Inevitably, I start to compare. I switch on social media more often than I usually do, I see people graduate with yet another degree or move up quickly in the same company. I have coffee with old friends, I go to family functions and see my absolutely wonderful, but very “normal” family. And through all of this, I'm pretty much the oddball out.
It's not just me that has this comparison problem. Many people — even big dreamers and those who live life dancing to a different tune — face this problem. 90 percent of the time, we're able to ignore what everyone else is doing and keep grooving, but 10 percent of the time, we notice that no one else is on the dance floor.
Naturally, it's hard to keep going. This doesn't mean we're doing anything wrong or need to cut our dreams down to size, it just means, to any extent humanly possible, we need to stop comparing ours lives to others'. Or rather, because comparison is a natural tendency, we need to be careful to select the right benchmarks for who we are.
We need to stop second-guessing ourselves and find the courage to keep being different, but that's easier said than done. So, how do we stop doing something that's so natural and normal? How do we stop sizing up where we are, in comparison to where everyone else is?
Here are seven things I've come up with to boost my courage and embrace my individual journey and career:
1. Monitor your consumption.
My rule: My phone is on airplane mode for the first and last two hours of every day simply for my sanity. If the first thing you do in the morning is wake up and look at Facebook and Instagram, and ingest a steady diet of the polished, superficial social media relics of everyone else's lives, it's no wonder you're unhappy.
It also means watching how many articles (like this one) you read that are made up of someone else's experiences and opinions. It means monitoring how much of the news you consume, how much TV you watch and even how many books you read.
Stay close to reality, my friends. If you're constantly ingesting other people's ideas or scrolling through fairytale lives on glowing screens, how can you ever come up with or trust in your own path?
2. Ensure adequate alone time.
Once you regulate your intake of information, you have to give yourself space to let all the things you do consume digest and take shape in the form of your own opinions, ideas, creativity, inspiration and self-understanding. At minimum, spend 15 minutes in silent meditation when you wake up in order to calm your mind and set positive intentions for the day. Then spend 15 minutes before bed to prepare your mind for rest.
I also go for evening walks most nights, and have one hour of reading time before bed. No TV, no movies, no phone, just feeding myself what I'm intellectually curious about.
3. Track your own goals and successes.
It can be overwhelming to log into Facebook or LinkedIn and see acquaintances getting promotions, graduating from medical school, marrying a long-term partner or traveling to an exotic locale. If you spend too much time focused on what everyone else is accomplishing, you'll forget about your own "wins," which are of a completely different variety than other people's, since they're solely your own.
80 percent of the time, measure yourself against yourself. Then 20 percent of the time, measure yourself against someone who's really over-the-top successful for inspiration. Not your neighbor or your friend, but someone 20 years ahead of you. That's who you need to look at, and that's who you need to bring into your life. The rest of the time, keep track of what's important to you, and remind yourself of all the things you're doing well.
4. Do a reality check.
Since you can't just be your own cheerleader, you have to face the facts. Are you actually falling behind? Are you not living up to your own potential? When you feel jealous, ashamed or anxious, what are the roots of those worries?
If there are valid concerns behind your comparisons, lay those out, too. Be brutally honest with yourself, identify your weaknesses and make a plan to overcome them. If you want a graduate degree, don't drool over someone else's grad pictures. Start studying for the GRE. If you want a promotion, don't spend time being jealous over a colleague's success. Start working harder.
5. Evaluate who you spend time with.
Have you ever heard the saying that you're the average of the five people you spend the most time with? If some of those people are causing you to consistently second-guess who you are or bring too much negative energy into your life, trim the fat.
Surround yourself not only with like-minded people (crazy, outlandish ones are even better), but also individuals who are the kind of people you want to be like. Look at everyone you spend the most time with and ask yourself, "Do I want to be like them?"
If not, try to make some new friends. Or at the very least, read good books, follow inspiring blogs, connect with people online and craft a virtual or intellectual place for yourself where you feel supported.
6. Meet with your Board of Directors.
Your Board of Directors should consist of people you've hand-selected and appointed (usually without their knowing) to have a position of influence in your life. Remember, members of the Board can retire or be asked to leave. They can be loved ones, mentors, colleagues, friends or spiritual "gurus."
When you're really in a crisis, open up to members of the Board, honestly share your feelings and ask for feedback. The people who truly love and support you can provide some perspective, and perhaps show you some things to consider to keep dreaming big while still staying on track. Or they can assure you with confidence that you're doing just fine.
7. Ask your 85-year-old self.
One of your members of the Board should always be yourself, on her death bed. Whenever the doubt creeps in — "Am I the crazy one?" "Am I out of touch with reality?" "Am I going to wake up one day and wonder what the heck I'm doing?" "Am I setting myself up for failure?" — spend some time alone, do the reality check and then ask yourself: What would 85-year-old me, on her death bed, tell me to do?
Usually, that answer is very honest and very accurate. And then, friends, the most important thing of all, is to understand the underlying fear.
When you look at other people and think everyone's doing "so much better" than you, dig down on that. What are you afraid of? Why are you reacting that way? Does it boil down to pride, money, reputation, love or losing love?
It's like a child who's afraid of the dark. You'd want to sit them down and ask, "Sweetie, what are you afraid will to happen to you in the dark?" And you'd want to listen to and pacify the child's fears by breaking each one down and assuring them that A) that's never going to happen, and B) how to deal with it step-by-step if it does happen.
Do the same thing for yourself. Ask yourself where the fear is coming from, and objectively check to see if it's based in reality. Most of the time, it's an irrational emotional response, and by simply being aware of it, we soothe and alleviate those fears.
Some of the time, there are some valid concerns that can be planned for on a very practical level in order to make us feel better about taking risks, chasing dreams and living unconventional lives. That kind of planning might sound something like this:
If becoming a radio host doesn't work out, which I define as not earning more than $50,000 a year three years from now, a back-up plan I'm happy with is going back to school to study nursing. Worst case scenario, I'm going to be fulfilled doing something else, and I'm blessed to be in the position to pursue further education and change courses if I need to.
However, I'm excited to give Plan A my all, and cope with a lower income and less recognition than my peers for the next three years while I test the waters. I accept that I'm on a different path, and as long as I'm happy and not harming anyone else by chasing this dream, I will persevere.
That balance of being grounded and self-aware, while still daring to live at the far-end of your possibilities spectrum, is a life-long struggle.
But I'd rather worry about going too far off the deep end than never really live at all. Who's with me?
This article was originally published on the author's personal blog.