Why Comparison is the Death of Great Work
One of the primary ways you most people judge the quality of their work is to compare themselves to others who do similar work.
You measure yourself against how many clients they have, how long it took them to become successful, their number of followers, their income.
Comparing yourself to someone who’s more successful in your field than you are is a pretty natural thing to do.
But it can also be a fatal mistake.
Why Comparisons Can Mess With Your Head
While it’s interesting and even helpful to observe the paths of people you look up to, direct comparisons can be dangerous and have a detrimental effect on your progress.
It’s too easy to connect the dots and assume that what worked for someone else in another place and time will work the same way for you.
Just as damaging is the idea that you should steer clear of creating something you love because someone has once done something similar.
When you compare yourself mid-journey to others who may be further along than you are, the result is insecurity and frustration.
The reason why we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind the scenes with everyone else's highlight reel.
It’s no wonder so many people scrap worthy projects half way through.
What Your Work and a Bus Station in Finland Have in Common
The Helsinki Bus Station Theory is one of the best descriptions I’ve ever read of what is probably the biggest killer of creative dreams and worthy aspirations of all kinds. It illustrates the serious danger of measuring yourself against others.
The theory is the brainchild of Arno Rafael Minkkinen, a Finnish photographer and professor.
While he originally meant it as a metaphor for the creative cycles of a career in photography, the theory applies well to just about anything else in life, particularly if it involves creativity, risk taking, or big audacious dreams.
In Helsinki, Finland there’s a huge bus station with 24 different platforms. From those platforms, you can get on the bus of your choosing and head off to any number of unique and interesting destinations.
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But there’s something unique about the way the buses run in Helsinki. No matter which final destination you’re traveling to, you will make the same exact first 5 stops as everyone else on all the other buses.
Look at the station as a metaphor for the beginning of your creative career or the start of your big, audacious plan. It’s your decision point.At the station, you choose your platform and your destination.
Your Helsinki Experience Begins
Your platform is what you’ll stand for in your business: your values, and your world view. The bus is the vehicle that will take you, stop-by-stop, to the destination of your choosing.
You formulate your plan of how to stand out in your market, choose your destination, and hop on the bus that will eventually take you where you want to go.
Let’s say that each stop along the bus route represents 6 months, and after some traveling, you’re approaching the second stop. That’s a year in the life of your endeavor. You’ve been working your fingers to the bone, studying, and doing your best to do unique, outstanding work.
You’re super proud of what you’ve created, and you can’t wait to share it with the world when the bus takes a short break at the second stop.When the bus gets to stop #2, you share your one-of-a-kind, next-level work with all the people there.
And out of the crowd comes some guy who says, “Cool! I like that. It reminds me of Joe Schmoe’s work. He does this exact thing. His bus came through here not too long ago.”
“Are you KIDDING??”, you think. “All this time I was busting my ass thinking I was onto something special… my OWN THING… and it turns out that it’s been done already by Joe Schmoe."
You immediately compare yourself to Joe and everyone else who has come before you....and your dreams of doing something new and unique die a horrible death right there at stop #2.
Deflated and frustrated, you decide that you had the wrong idea about what you should be doing the whole time.
Your platform must have been all wrong… or the destination you chose was off base.
You give up on your original destination, hail a cab, and tell the driver to take you back to the terminal to pick a new platform and a new destination.
Some time after arriving back at the bus station, you choose your new platform and new destination… and this time, you’re convinced it’s the right plan for you. It’s unique and it’s all yours.
You think, “No way Joe Schmoe ever thought of THIS!”
So you jump on this new bus all jazzed up and ready to take on the world doing your new thing.
This time, on your way to your completely new destination, you decide to show your work to someone at stop 3.
They smile and say, “Ah. Nice work! Good for you. You know, that’s very similar to the work done by Jane Whatsit. Do you know her? Her bus came through here last month."
Again, you realize that your work isn’t as unique as you thought, and that people have “been there, done that” before.
You beat yourself up for again choosing the wrong destination.
You hop in another cab and head back to the terminal. Comparing your work and your creative journey to others has sent you back to square one once again.
A Vicious, Productivity-Killing Circle
Over time, you do it again, and again, and again. Starting journey after journey, each time learning someone else has beaten you to the punch with “your thing.” Each time growing more frustrated and more convinced that you’re not capable of creating anything truly unique.
It’s an identity crisis in the making, and far too many people with SO much to offer throw in the towel because of it. It’s a toxic loop you can waste your entire creative life being stuck in…
Create something you love, share your work, compare yourself others, trash it and start over, choose a new platform… repeat. Forever.
So what can you do about it?
Stay on the F****ng Bus
At least that’s what Minkkinen’s advice to his students was. “Stay on the f***ing bus.”
(Except without the asterisks - he doesn't have to answer to my Catholic mother.)
Because if stay on the bus, eventually you’ll see a difference. The buses that leave the Helsinki Bus Station all have the same stops for about a kilometer, but then they go off on their own individual, unique routes. And so will you.
Don’t let yourself get stuck comparing yourself to others who have been there before you. When someone else compares your work to others (and they will), brush it off and stay on the f****ng bus.
If you do, you’ll get past the early stages where your work very well might be unoriginal. But after those first few stops, you’ll start to build on your experiences. You’ll develop your own vision and voice - and that is what will make your work stand out as original.
When you stay the course, you’ll begin to see little differences between your work and the work of others… and then big ones.
The thing that will make your work special is not the platform you start from or the route you choose. It's YOU.
It’s your personality, your life experience, and your own unique vision of the world.
But you can’t even begin to develop those things unless you stay on the bus and stop making unfair comparisons between your work and the work of others.
The process is a rite of passage - a developmental phase you have to go through while your real uniqueness gestates and prepares to emerge on its own. And it will.
Those first several unspectacular stops are your creative training ground. They’re your little league before the NFL, the middle school band before the Philharmonic, the high school art class before the Louvre.
You’ll get there.
But not unless you stay on the bus and make the most of that period of time when you’re feeling unspectacular and unoriginal.
While comparisons are inevitable, don’t let them frustrate you. Chalk them up to being a sign that the right developmental process is underway. An affirmation that you’re on the road to becoming what you want to be.
Hang in there.
Do great work.
Learn a ton along the way.
Stay on the f****ng bus.