My Dad, Steve Jobs and the Comparison Trap

I grew up on a farm — an environment where mechanical equipment abounds and things break (often at inopportune times). Given that, having great mechanical skills and aptitudes are a great benefit to a farmer. Thankfully, my father had those skills. He was so good at the variety of skills required that I grew up feeling woefully inadequate – believing I had no capacity to be effective in tearing apart, fixing, or even diagnosing mechanical problems.

I carried that belief with me until I was out of college and was a first time homeowner. Thousands of miles from Dad I learned that two important lessons:

  • I had more mechanical aptitudes than I realized (more than many of my neighbors for example)
  • I had learned a lot from my Dad in these areas.

Recently, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs died. In the hours and days since his death his comments and quotations have been printed and repeated often. His famous Stanford Commencement Address has been mentioned, excerpted and replayed on YouTube. Many who knew him, and many who didn’t, have talked in nearly reverential tones about how wonderful a communicator, creative visionary, and leader he was.

Many who are writing, saying and thinking these things are feeling about themselves in comparison to Jobs, like I felt in comparison to my father. Barely veiled under comments about his skills are the feelings, “I could never pitch a new product like Steve,” or “Steve was so great at that.”

The Comparison Trap

People are falling into the trap I fell into in relationship to my Dad — the very dangerous Comparison Trap. The Comparison Trap starts, perhaps with a healthy admiration, but quickly becomes a losing proposition because:

  •  The focus is on the other person’s greatest skill or talent and is often one we struggle with. (How are you going to ever compare looking at your weakness against another person’s strength?)
  • The focus is on that one trait or set of skills, and so it doesn’t take a balanced view of the other person’s total skill package into account. (Just because they are awesome at that, doesn’t mean they are great at everything.)
  • The combination of the first two facts leads feelings of futility (“What’s the use, I could never be as good as them at that!”)
  • The futility feeling keeps us from taking any action to improve (what’s the use?) and so every time we compare ourselves with that person we will be still look and feel inadequate.

Does that mean we shouldn’t admire or look up to the skills of others?

Not at all.

It simply means to avoid comparisons and focus on a learning opportunity.

The Learning Opportunity

When we translate the comparisons and attendant feelings of futility and victimhood into actions (Ok, so now what should I do?) we are grabbing the Learning Opportunity. Here’s how you make that translation.

  1. Notice your Admiration.
  2. Determine what you admire and why.
  3. Observe what they are doing — break it down into small pieces.
  4. Integrate what you observe by trying something one piece of what they are doing (Integrate, not copy).
  5. Try it, improve it, try it again.
  6. Stay focused on the results you want, not “being them” or “being like them.”

Remember that imitation may be the sincerest form a flattery, but it isn’t necessarily the way to get the best results.

I’ll never be as naturally gifted (or as skilled) as my Dad was with mechanical things, and I can continue to learn from his example.

You’ll likely not be the technical visionary that Steve Jobs was, and you can learn from him . . . as long as you take action . . . and avoid the Comparison Trap.

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Comments

  1. Kavita says

    Dear Kevin, Please don’t smile too much at what I am going to write next, but I am actually typing this on a MacBook Pro (and I do love the machine – utterly expensive, and utterly value for money) but this is the end of this point. As a leader and trainer of leaders (project managers to be precise) I have come to believe that wonderful project outcomes measurable in terms of tangibles and dollars are good for corporations, but the social cost is not really adding up. Look at the miserable lives people are leading – even the corporate big-wigs. Social bankruptcy, moral bankruptcy, and all the stiff the present “wall-street protestors” are screaming about in their view points. I always feel sad when young talent get snatched out of our world, and I condole with Mrs. Jobs and her children. But what about the “style” and methods Steve jobs employed to get Apple to where it is now! I completely agree with the Maya Angelou sentiment – “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel”. Even Apple and all their products may eventually land up in the Smithsonian Museum, but those Apple employees who got sacked within 5 minutes of meeting their CEO, will never forget the trauma of their treatment. The ends don’t justify the means, and I believe they never will. All we can say “Steve RIP – we will muddle thru and make it with or without you in life henceforth”. Only People matter!

  2. says

    Exactly! Not only do you do a great job of capturing the pitfalls of comparison, but then you take it a step further and provide practical steps to take a positive approach. Love it!
    The world doesn’t need more Steve Jobs. The world needs people who are connected to who they are and are as good as they can be at what they do, as Steve Jobs was.
    Thank you, Kevin!

  3. Marcia Norman says

    Kevin, one of the most valuable posts you have published. I share the same feeling about this as you do.Thanks for reinforcing it. Yes ,admiration should be viewed as a learning oppty not as if we could never achieve our goals since there is someone who we could never live up too. I have a saying that I only so often repeat: I’m not better than anyone else neither am I worse. People have sthengths and weaknesses as there are nobody perfect. We should aim in excel and work towards achievements.

  4. says

    Kevin, like the article and your right. Often times we look only at the strength of a Steve Jobs and rightly so, yet Jobs like Henry Ford was often a tyrant, drove people and played people against one another. Their personal lives could be called a mess. No one is perfect, as you say, evaluate what your seeing, define how you could apply it and then work to perfect it in your own way. Adaptation not carbon copy. Both Jobs and Ford were great leaders, thinkers and changed the world. Were they perfect, not on your life. Perhaps that’s the real lesson.

  5. Rhae Swisher says

    Kevin great article! When I decided to get serious about public speaking, specifically making presentations, I went looking for the best. I had seen video on some of Steve Job’s presentations and admittedly I knew I couldn’t be him.

    But I could learn from him. I found Carmine Gallo’s book on “The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs” and studied it. I also studied books by Nancy Duarte, Garr Reynolds, Tim Kogel and others. But eventually it all came down to practice, practice, practice and then just doing it. First attempts were not as pretty as later work.

    I wouldn’t want Steve Jobs style, not all of it. Or anybody else’s for that matter. Just like you don’t fix things the way your dad did, I don’t present like anyone else. And I’m real comfortable with that!

    To a certain extent we have to get over ourselves and enjoy being who and what we are.

  6. Elan says

    Dear Kevin…
    There won’t be another Steve or another Kevin or another me. What we can do is learn and adapt from others. I have learnt so much from your writings and have used them in my leadership facilitations. We will miss Steve for he was a great innovater and some one whom i admired for his spiritual believes. Rest in peace my friend

  7. says

    Hi Kevin. Reading this article reminded me of my father and my grandfather. My father spent his whole life trying to be someone else and would often change his style of dress and mannerisms too fit in with the person he was trying imitate. It was a incredibility sad thing to see because he was a very hard working and talented man. But I never wanted to spend time with him because it seemed ‘weird.’ My grandfather on the other hand was always just himself. Just a really good man. My father was always second best because he could never match up. I learned from them that to be the best, all I need to be is me, no one else and as a business consultant, I try to communicate this the my clients. Thanks for a great article.

  8. says

    Kevin,
    Making comparisons between ourselves and others is extremely common — especially in the dominant US culture. In the best of circumstances we will use that comparison as an opportunity to get new ideas or try a new role that helps us become more effective. What we don’t ask ourselves is, why we SHOULD be like Steve Jobs. Why would the world NEED another Steve Jobs? The one we have did a fine job of being Steve Jobs. But the world DOES need a Kevin Eikenberry, a Brian Remer, and a [insert any name here]! Each of us has a unique contribution that only we can make. That’s what the world needs and that’s who we should be like.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] has been about how good he was at it, and by comparison how poor most others are (see my post about The Comparison Trap).  I don’t really think, for us as leaders, that this quotation is really about [...]

  2. [...] Learn from, don’t emulate.  Look to leaders you admire.  There is much you can learn by observing others.  Doing this after you have begun to understand your own style is far healthier for your development, lest you fall into the comparison trap. [...]

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