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.
- Notice your Admiration.
- Determine what you admire and why.
- Observe what they are doing — break it down into small pieces.
- Integrate what you observe by trying something one piece of what they are doing (Integrate, not copy).
- Try it, improve it, try it again.
- 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.