Killing by Comparison

Et ungt par med en klassisk amerikaner

I remember as kids, me and my friends, were always comparing each others’ birthday—or Christmas—presents. Who had gotten the coolest, the best, the most expensive, the latest, the hippest present of all? It was of course a childish competition of sorts, but just that; childish or naïve. I believe all kids have probably done the same. However, many of us still do it in various ways as grown-ups, don’t we, even if we don’t spell it out as blatantly as we did as kids. But we still compare in our minds, and we envy the neighbour when he has bought a bigger and better whatever it is than we have or when she got promoted and we didn’t. The comparison is similar compared to when we were kids, only the objects have changed (and become more expensive): Who has gotten the coolest looking car? Or who has the most beautiful looking home amongst our friends? Now, though, as grown-ups, it seems silly or spiteful. Moreover, as grown-ups we have learned to feel inferior when we fall short on such comparisons.

From a rationally point of view such comparison does derive as silly, but it does—or did—serve an understandable purpose. It’s instinctively something we human beings do, and it’s a way of securing our existence—from the times when we were hunters and gatherers. However, in a modern society, it may not serve much of a purpose any longer. I am not trying to make judgements in any ways, just observing the behaviour of my peers and myself. What I do know, tough, is when we pass on this need to compare into our creative lives, it becomes very destructive. Creativity is killed when we start to compare ourselves with others.

As kids when we compared presents, it wasn’t something serious, we didn’t hold it within us for longer than it took to spell it out. Then we moved on. As grown-ups, life becomes serious, and I believe that is what makes the difference. Everything means so much more when we leave childhood behind. As we get older, we learn the importance of the outcome of comparing one thing with another—or we put more significance to it. We learn to interpret the result of comparing with others and make it become something we adjust to. And that’s why comparing creative work is so destructive for us.

If you go into a classroom of kids and ask them who can draw or who can sing, you will get every single kid to raise their hands. Do the same with the same persons twenty years later and probably none of the class will raise their hands—or only a very few. The older versions of the persons hear the question with a string attached to it, making it into a comparison: «How many of you can draw or sing… well? When we age, we start to compare everything. We compare ourselves with everyone and dwell on where we fall short. The older version of the kids that could draw or sing, think to themselves, «I can’t draw that well so I shouldn’t raise my hand». This comparative logic is extra baggage that devalues and decreases any creativity we once had.

The first step to become more creative (regardless of age) is to stop blaming ourselves, stop believing we can’t do, and take action. Even if you think you aren’t very creative, it doesn’t mean you can’t change. You might just need some practice, or you need to let go of the mean teacher who criticized your lack of skill. Like Roald Dahl, the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and countless other great books, whose teacher once wrote on his report card when he was 15: «A persistent muddler. Vocabulary negligible, sentences malconstructed. He reminds me of a camel.» Roald Dahl wasn’t the sharpest kid, but he channelled all of that into plot lines, characters and words. That is what makes his writing so fun.

The moral is that we should not compare our creativity with others. Keep it flowing by itself, there is no need to hold it up against the rest of the world. That only creates—pun intended—fear in ourselves. And if anything, fear kills creativity. So—as hard as it sometimes feels—believe in yourself, believe the creative magic that is within you and don’t look to your next door neighbour. As before mentioned Roald Dahl was wrote: «Above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.»

Facts about the photo: It was taken with a Canon EOS 5D and a 24-105 mm zoom lens set at 24 mm. Shutter speed: 1/200 of a second. Aperture: f/11. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

75 thoughts on “Killing by Comparison

  1. Comparison not only creates fear, it creates jealousy. Neither of which are productive. When we reach the point where we can compare ourselves in the present to ourselves in the past and see the vast improvement that is there, it is then that comparison serves a useful purpose. Which is why I have file drawers and bins chock full of old stuff that I look at occasionally to help me see where I’m at NOW. And also to shockingly discover every now and then that the stuff i thought was so horrible years ago is actually kind of interesting and intriguing.

    1. You are right, comparison does create jealousy, too. And comparing your present self with the past is indeed the only time it makes sense. Thank you for sharing your poignant thoughts on the subject, Alli.

  2. Your text is right and well written. Impossible to summarize it, but if I had to face my children…
    I will tell them: “You learn to be”, “Uses the verb to be and not the verb have”, “Creativity is an intimate garden is beautiful when it is shared”. 😉
    Otto, just to say that I completely agree with you!


  3. This post makes me think of a favorite quote/story: “”When my daughter was about seven years old, she asked me one day what I did at work. I told her I worked at the college — that my job was to teach people how to draw. She stared at me, incredulous, and said, “You mean they forget?” ~Howard Ikemoto

  4. Wise words and so true…we live in a competitive world full of haves and have nots…competition and envy is felt at all levels…not only amongst the haves. Such a wonderful photo…wish I had a car like that and had their youth again!!!

  5. Wise words. I think that is the hardest thing to not do though. I admire great art, great photos. But I am guilty of that little voice that says, “that is much better than you can do.” Have to squash that little voice. Lol

  6. And so have I! 🙂

    I enjoyed reading the post, Otto. I suppose we all more or less know that comparison has an intoxicating effect, but I often think of various photographers (including you), whom I consider being better than me, as my role models. To the point when I have learned what I need to go ahead on my own. I once had a yoga teacher who wouldn’t correct me or anyone; her philosophy was; your body knows what is right. Then I had a another, great teacher who said; “watch Siri, how elegant she is performing, now for the next ten minutes, she is our role model!” It was very inspiring, learning to be and to perform like this. Never for one second did the teacher let us feel Siri was better, she was just the right guide.
    I once had the pleasure of attending a workshop by Antony Robbins. His motto; “always learn from the best”. 🙂

    Best regards,

    1. You are pointing to an interesting balance. In one end acknowledging that some people have more skills and something you can learn from, at the other end, not make that understanding into envy or diminishing your own creativity. We should all learn from others, and I totally agree with the quote by Antony Robbins. Thank you for the lovely words about role models, Dina.

  7. Beautiful written, Otto. You’ve made many important point and I throughly agree that competitiveness in art ruins the true spirit of creativity and collaboration. You’ve hit the nail on the head.

  8. this is so true otto.. but i must say that comparing our creativity with others if put into proper perspective may also inspire and serves as motivation to do better. hey, if one did a good job, i could too right? well sans envy of course.

  9. Dear Otto, I really enjoyed reading your post about creativity and camparison and immediately had to think of Shakespear’s King Lear and that jealousy seems to be an eternal negative side in the human being!:) Becoming more aware of this maybe gives us the possibility to overcome it. Have a very good day. Very best regards Martina

  10. so true. i love the “…well” addition to “can you do this or that”. as soon as i saw the photo with the antique car along with writing, i knew i was in for a treat. didn’t expect the thought process, but sat here agreeing with every word. we can’t shed our human nature in this life, but i find it can be tempered the older i get. not only tempered, but my life situations have taken me to a level where i find what was once important to me, no longer is valued. i’ve truly ‘down-sized’ in every area of my life. i’m enjoying the peace i have and pray to keep the mindset.

    1. Sounds like you have come a long way. And I bet it’s taken some working with yourself. As time goes on and we get older we tend to shift perspective, don’t we. 🙂 Thank you for the comment, Sherri.

  11. i’m afraid this post made me feel like crying… my problem with photographic slumps started when G+ started, and everybody was getting oooohs and aaaahs for their HDR photos, i got so upset that my photos weren’t as beautiful and never would be… i tried HDR for a while, and it did look good, but it’s not what i wanted after getting upset about HDR… right now i’m in another BIG slump and i’ve stopped my photoblog, and i’m unsure if i will ever get out of this one.

      1. if i can figure out what’s wrong with me, you will be the first I come to to see if there is anything you can do… I know how helpful you are for me.

  12. How very true all that is Otto. The problem that arises when we try to compete with others photographically is that we stop listening to our inner creativity and try to be someone that we are not. And when we discard our own creativity and ape someone else’s (because it is in fashion, or it might be what the judge or the exhibition is looking for) the quality of our work suffers because it is not based on a solid creative foundation.

    1. You are very right. The best work will always from the heart and spirit of ourselves. It’s fine to pick up ideas and learn from others, but we still have to put ourselves on the line, don’t we. Comparing with others certainly doesn’t make much good. Thank you for your comment, Andy.

  13. How and what we learn from others – including those of less experience and accomplishment – is far more constructive than battling to be ‘better than’ Often a seemingly inferior picture or photo can contain some small gem to trigger a development in our own work. I agree, creativity isn’t about competition.

    1. But it seems like we humans have a drive for competition even when it doesn’t help us much… And I agree with you, all pictures have elements that can be used as a basis for further development. Thank you sharing your thoughts on the subject, Louis.

  14. Totally! The world would be a much better place if people just nurtured their own creativity. We would all be more balanced and then happier. It is exactly as you say that we constrict ourselves based on our judgements of others. But also I think it is partially cultural. We are all so focused on our careers that we don’t even think about pursuing other activities unless we have a legitimate professional stab at them. Such a shame too, as the happiest artists do the work as a hobby.

  15. So many good points have been made, there’s no need to repeat them. What I will add is that I’ve found one way for comparison to be good, both in writing and in photography. I’m constantly comparing my current work with my previous work, looking for signs of improvement, and determining where more work is needed.

    The difference is that I’m the one who decides whether I’m satisfied, or not. Sometimes I am. Sometimes, I see where I’ve missed the mark. But since I’m the one doing the judging, the sense of falling short isn’t as sharp as it used to be, when I constantly was comparing myself to other, and inevitably falling short, in my own estimation.

    I’ve found that kind of self-critique, focusing on my work first, also frees me to learn from others, and enjoy the work of the truly accomplished, without envy. Of course I get twinges of envy, discouragement, or inadequacy from time to time — everyone does. But that’s when discipline, and the ability to set aside irrational, emotional reactions becomes so important. Then, we can get back to work.

    1. This is a good point. Comparing your present work with your old work is a good idea if nothing else to see how you have moved or development from one time to another. Thank you for a very poignant comment, Linda.

  16. Another wonderful, thought-provoking post, Otto. Comparison can be destructive if it merely causes feelings of envy, discontent or inferiority (whether in the material or creative realm). If it provides information that can be learned from and acted upon, then it can be good and useful. At least it works that way for me.

  17. It’s really nice and lovely to realize how we all share similar thoughts. And you, Otto, have expressed them so perfectly that they hit a chord. In other words, it was all “in flow”. Thanks for the inspiration and eagerly waiting to read more. 🙂

  18. The first step to become more creative (regardless of age) is to stop blaming ourselves, stop believing we can’t do, and take action. Well said, Otto!

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  20. Your posts really speak to me. I really thought it was interesting how you talked about writing and drawing, and why we don’t raise our hands as we get older. I thought what you said was completely accurate and it will be something I think about in the future. I look forward to hearing more from your blog soon.

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