Run your own race
By Jamuna Rangachari
Excessive competition and constant comparison with others can lead to discontentment and despair, but seeing ourselves as unique individuals will lead to body-mind-spirit harmony, Jamuna Rangachari discovers
Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”
Namrata Gulati Sapra, a writer, got married in 2015. Having worked continuously for five years, she decided to take some time off. Eventually, she made new friends; they knew how to drive, cook well and drape sarees beautifully. Namrata started feeling incomplete and less independent because she couldn’t do any of these things. She decided to work on her skills and succeeded. Then, she realised that many of her friends were doing exceptionally well in their careers. Again, she decided to revive her career and took up a job. Unfortunately, it didn’t match her qualification and experience, and she quit within a month, feeling dissatisfied. “It is at this point that I realised I was constantly running the rat race,” says Namrata. Instead of feeling envious of her friends, she started praying for their happiness and helping them out in any way she could. “Once I embraced this approach in life, God began showering his blessings upon me. Lucrative projects fell into my lap one after the other and I finally felt content. I have followed this path till today and am glad that I stopped comparing my life with that of the others who I’m sure had their own set of challenges to overcome.”
Truly, we invite way too much grief when we play the foolish games of competition and comparison. There is much despair in the world today as everyone is trying to compete with everyone else. Only if we realised that we are unique, and must compete with ourselves alone. A wise aunt of mine once advised me, “My dear, never compare yourself with another. It makes you either vain or bitter.” It was good advice but, like most good advices, easier said than followed. I come from a musically inclined family. While most of my cousins grew up in South India, I grew up in the North. I envied them because they got to learn music – singing or playing an instrument – and attend concerts by music maestros. I loved music too and longed to sing but was too insecure as I believed my cousins were better than me. Moreover, I believed they had better opportunities at everything in life. It took me a long time to realise that everyone has their own journey and it is foolish to compare ours with theirs.
Comparisons are unfair. We typically compare our worst qualities with our perception of others’ best traits. Also, while comparisons require a metric, most things like beauty or goodness can’t be measured. We get 86,400 seconds to seize the day and spending even a moment judging ourselves against some benchmark is an utter waste of time. The whole process of pitting oneself against others erodes our confidence and zest for life. Besides, there is no end to our desire to be better than others which often leads to discontentment and resentment towards others and ourselves.
Affect on children
I was once at a children’s party and most of the parents who were there to pick their kids up wanted them to finish eating quickly. One parent even announced that there would be a prize for the child who finished first. One of the young boys, after struggling to gobble up his food for a while, said, “We don’t want a prize that will not let us enjoy our food.” Hearing this, all the adults were suitably chastened. This incident sums up the essence of the way we compare ourselves and even our children with others. We may call it ‘healthy competition’ but that is never the case since comparison with others is always unhealthy.
Most education systems all over the world, especially in India, are replete with excessive competition. We’ve heard so many cases where children even commit suicide because they are unable to cope with the pressure. We can learn a lot from Finland in this area. Co-operation, not competition, drives education in Finland; during the first nine years – the Finnish call it comprehensive school – students learn in a relaxed, informal set up; there are no ‘gifted’ programmes, and the more advanced children are expected to help those who are slower to catch on; grading may be limited to verbal assessments rather than formal grades; there are no high-stakes tests. Most children attend publicly funded comprehensive schools and there are virtually no private schools. Co-operation increases creativity, teamwork, self-esteem and a sense of belonging. It promotes the development of a true learning community. Critical thinking and leadership skills flourish in a co-operative environment when everyone is focussed on the same learning goals. Unlike education systems in many other countries that are based on competition and lag far behind in international tests of student attainment, Finland focuses on the happiness of the child and not its achievements.
Pulkit Sharma, a psychotherapist, says, “The roots of comparison can often be traced back to our childhood. Parents and teachers tend to compare children often to motivate rather than ridicule them but children incorporate this habit of comparison in their own behaviour. Thereafter, they constantly compare themselves with others to figure out how worthy they are. This habit is dangerous because it turns a person into a slave of other people’s conditioning; in order to feel good, the person must to do what others are doing and outperform them at that task. If they do it, there is momentary happiness and if they don't, there is a gamut of negative emotions; and this pattern continues throughout life.”
Self-reflection: A clever solution
Narrating an experience with a friend, Pulkit says, “A friend of mine spent a decade of his life climbing the corporate ladder. He outperformed his colleagues and bought the best of cars and a house to live in. One day he came to see me and broke down saying that he was tired and didn’t feel motivated to do what he was doing. I sat him down and helped him introspect. It became apparent that years of pursuing achievement with an overtly competitive spirit was his way of telling himself that he is ‘good’. In that very moment, my friend saw the absurdity of the whole exercise and soon resigned from his job. Today, he works as a consultant, drawing only a fifth of his previous salary; but he is happy because he is able to do what he wants to do.”
Having seen many such cases, Pulkit confirms, “A clever solution to break away from the rat race is deep self-reflection. We should ask ourselves why we are so shaky about our self-worth. Comparison and defeating others can never give us self-worth because that is something we can only find within ourselves.”
Suzy Singh, in her book, 7 Karma Codes, says, “So while everybody champions comparison in the hope that it will jump-start performance and promote excellence, what they forget is that comparisons divide people. It turns them against each other. It brings inequalities into sharp focus. It separates and antagonises, instead of unifying them. It endorses labels, shifting between competent and incompetent, good and bad, haves and have-nots, winners and losers, thinkers and doers. Consequently, depending on which group you fall into, you either end up believing that you are incapable and unworthy, or if you belong to the ‘endowed group’, your ego becomes inflated, and you become trapped in a superiority complex. Both psychologies divide and create inequalities. To live in harmony, you must avoid the need to compare and compete. You must focus on what unites, not on what sets you apart. When you perceive others to be more successful, or happier, wealthier and more influential than you are, you become enmeshed in a ‘scarcity syndrome’. You become restless, and many unresolved questions in your mind clamour for resolution. You ask, “Why does he have more money than me? Why did God give her such a pretty face and make me so plain? Why do I get to live such a shoddy life while everyone else is so blessed?” To cut a long story short, you feel cheated and grossly inadequate.
We all are works in progress in the journey of life. Sometimes we may take two steps forward and at other times, many steps backward. As long as we realise we are stepping into the belief that liberates our energy to live more authentically, creatively, purposefully and wholeheartedly, we are indeed on the right path.
We are our one and only legitimate frame of reference. So, it will help if we track ourselves against our own self of yesterday. Here, a little self-love can go a long way when it comes to liberating ourselves from the shackles that comparison wraps around our psyche. When comparing ourselves to others, we can sometimes feel like we’ve ‘missed the boat’. It’s a thought that breeds resignation and fuels self-pity. In reality, there is no boat! We are the only boat in our own life. There’s no other boat!
We do need to have a benchmark as a tool to progress in life but this happens only when we focus on our own progress. We must commit to working hard to take care of ourselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually. This results in us growing in all areas a little bit each day. Along with this, we could celebrate the little advancements we are making without comparing them to others. This is good not only for our own selves, but for the benefit and contribution we can offer to others. Let us remember that we all have our own mountains to climb, fears to conquer and paths to forge. Knowing this, let us run our own race and let others run theirs.
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