Desiderata is a poem loved by many for its wisdom and quiet optimism. This is the 5th blog in a series on the poem as we mine its riches line by line.
“If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.”
But we do. We compare ourselves with others all the time. We can’t help it. And surely it has to be one of the worst things we can do.
Am I smarter? More good looking? Faster? Stronger? More compassionate? More friendly? A better listener? A better lover? A better cook/mechanic/scientist/manager/leader/teacher/nurse/doctor/driver…..?
It’s tiring just thinking about it.
The fact is that the world rewards talent. If we’re better at something than someone else, we’ll get the job or get the affirmation or get the relationship. So how can we not compare ourselves to others? There’s simply too much at stake.
Here’s the thing. There will always be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Always. Without fail. Even if you were proclaimed the greatest person in your field, there’s always the chance that someone, somewhere, unknown to your peers or just simply unknown by anyone, is better.
I’m a good bass guitarist. Some people have raved about my playing ability. But my skills pale in comparison to many prominent well known bassists, and their skills in turn pale in comparison to the great bass players of the world. So what should I do? Measure myself by those inferior to me? Measure myself to those better than me?
I need to ask myself “why do I play?” Because I love to. And that’s what I need to focus on. Anything else takes my attention away from why I do to what I do.
Now admittedly, I don’t do it for the money. I have a day job that takes care of my monetary needs, so any cash from gigs is nice, but not needed. On the other hand, if I was a professional player making my living from it, my skills compared to others becomes more important because more is at stake.
After all, the better players will get more gigs – or will they? I’ve discovered that personality is just as important as skill. People will hire you for who you are just as much as for what you can do. I mean, obviously, you have to have the chops – you have to be good at what you do. But if you and the other guy are both competent enough, being extra good is no guarantee you’ll get the job over him or her.
Constantly Desiderata comes back to who you are. Comparing yourself to others is a sign that you are not comfortable with yourself. Although we all do it, some of us do it more than others. And we know what it feels like when we don’t measure up. Conversely, being perceived as better than someone else is just as bad. We get proud, or vain, and most likely set ourselves up for a fall. We’re looking at the wrong things.
And I’m not just talking about skill. We can be proud of how many friends we have (I’ve met people like that). We can be proud of how caring we are, or how helpful we can be, or we can berate ourselves for not being as sensitive or as loving as someone else. It’s the same thing. How trapped we become – because our focus is on the wrong thing.
So what should our focus be on? Desiderata goes on to say “Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans”. Well that’s one answer. Enjoying your achievements is pretty self evident, even though lots of people don’t. They’re too busy thinking about the next thing they have to do. But to enjoy your plans? What’s that all about?
You’ve probably heard the saying “enjoy the journey and not just the destination”. I’m guessing it’s something along those lines. I remember a proverb that stated “A wise decision is still wise even if fortune makes it of no effect. A foolish decision is still foolish, even if the outcome against all odds happens to be good”. In other words, the process is actually more important than the outcome.
Think about that. If you are caught up only with the outcome, then your happiness depends on its success or failure. But if you allow the process to be satisfying as well, your own happiness and sense of worth is not tied to the more precarious and less controllable result. You are not measuring yourself by the outcome, but by the journey.
Now of course, if your journey was foolish or ill prepared, that’s a lesson for another time. But if you’ve done your best, or close to it, then a good outcome (though clearly desirable!) is not necessary to your own sense of self. And therefore others’ success or failure isn’t a measure of who you are either.
These words are so easy to type, and another thing entirely to do. But that’s wisdom for you – it’s not easy, its just right.
Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Strive to be happy.
Max Ehrmann, Desiderata, Copyright 1952.