How do I stop comparing my career with everyone else’s?
How do I stop comparing my career to other people’s careers? I feel constant dread, anxiety, and worry. I’m about to turn 27 and I haven’t figured things out like I thought I would have. I’m scared that I’m wasting my life, that I’m rubbish, that I’ll never achieve my career goals. The anxiety surrounding this is so overwhelming, I have lost all joy and hope in what I do.
I am so sorry you are feeling this way. It’s overwhelming when your thoughts are filled with worry and negative self-talk. But the good news is, it won’t always be like this. I promise.
I can assure you of that because I, myself, am no stranger to comparison or to anxiety. If there’s a parallel to be made with another person, I guarantee I’ve made it. And I’ve felt how you’re feeling now with my own career: My trajectory looks more like a scribble than an upward line. Some of my friends make salaries in the six-figure range, while that just isn’t the industry standard for me. I’m not even sure what my own long-term goals are.
So for your sake (and mine!), I spoke with feminist career coach Cynthia Pong, JD. The first thing she shared? That career comparison is common—even rampant.
We’ve been socially conditioned to think that we need to reach certain milestones by a specific age or time. This conditioning can come from all over: our loved ones, current and formative mentors, religion, culture, society, media. Pong, an author and founder of Embrace Change, adds that “these ideas are further perpetuated by systems of power like capitalism and white patriarchy.” Woof. That’s a lot working against us.
We should question these “timelines” that we are “supposed” to be on. Who decided we have to figure everything out by 27? (For the record, everyone I know—and I mean everyone—is still figuring it out.) I’m living proof that careers are not linear, but for good measure, look at former First Lady Michelle Obama, Ava Duvernay, or Ina Garten, too.
Let’s also ask ourselves about the comparisons we’re making. Are the realities of other people’s careers really what you think they are, and ones you envy? Most often, we’re envisioning a highlight reel, the way we do with Instagram. Sure, a few friends of mine have great salaries and can travel the world on lavish vacations, but they work 80+ hours a week. And yes, freelancers I know have unlimited flexibility in their work/life balance…but the pandemic has slowed their work for over a year.
Here’s another question to pose: Do you enjoy the work you do? If no, then perhaps that’s a sign to focus on your future, but not necessarily a reason to compare! Others’ careers aren’t always even relevant to our own interests, work/life balance, or skill sets. Take some time to identify—or even manifest—your career ambitions: What are you good at? In what areas do you feel most proud of your work? And remember, we’re more than our productivity, so consider the kind of life you want to have outside of work, too.
Lastly, turn self-criticism into self-compassion. Pong reminds us that we’re all unique, noting, “How could we fairly compare our insides to someone else’s outsides?”
Here’s what she recommends instead to channel a more nurturing, encouraging mindset:
Each time you feel a thought creeping in like “I haven’t figured things out like I thought I would have,” try to identify and reject this notion. Instead, “replace the thought with something self-compassionate and self-affirming (e.g., ‘I am doing my best and that is enough,’ ‘I am exactly where I need to be right now,’ ‘I can trust the timing of my life.’).” I personally have been able to practice self-compassion more thanks to therapy and resources like the Self-Compassion Workbook.
Create what Pong calls a “Brag Sheet,” or a running list of your accomplishments. It can include anything from remembering to water the plants to winning an Employee of the Month award. Rather than focusing on what you feel is lacking, you’ll create rock-solid evidence of how great you’re actually doing.
If you do choose to focus on goals, make sure they’re achievable and inside your scope of control. Break your ambitions down into bite-sized action steps, and focus on doing the next micro-step in the list whenever those anxious thoughts spring up.
As we’ve all heard, “comparison is the thief of joy,” and these days, we deserve all the joy we can get. Our life trajectories are uniquely our own, and for everyone you’re comparing yourself to, someone is likely doing the same to you! Keep that in mind, practice self-compassion when comparison rears its head, and remember that we’re cheering you on—you’ve got this. 💛
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Henah Velez (she/her) is an Editor at The Good Trade. Prior to her work here, Henah worked in the nonprofit sector for more than seven years including at She’s the First, a nonprofit fighting for a world where every girl chooses her own future. Based out of Santa Barbara, you can usually find Henah roaming around local downtowns and small businesses, hanging with her pets, or traveling as much as possible.