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I’m a competitive person. I’ve pushed myself to be “better than” at a lot of things throughout my life - from school, to music, to everything. Growing up in the classical world, I remember how we always used to ask each other, “How long have you been playing?” This was our way of comparing talent, with the assumption that if two people had been studying their instrument for the same amount of time, but one of them sounded better, then that person was just… better. If we met someone who sounded better than us, we would quickly rush to ask them how long they had been playing - because if they had been in it for longer than we were, then we had an excuse to “not be as good”.

Habits are hard to break. Working with my preschool kids now, I constantly see how they try to one-up each other: Who can count higher? Who can say something funnier, or more clever? Who even just gets a chance to talk, while everyone else has to listen and wait for their turn?

We all know that comparisons don’t help. They cause us to burn a lot of energy on all the wrong things, they reinforce all our false senses of who we are (because we get so hung up on the opinions of others), and they create a barrier between us and other people - a barrier that very much gets in the way of really seeing each other, and appreciating each other’s company, just as we are. Rather than admire each other’s strengths, we look for each other’s weaknesses.

But one of the big questions for me has been: How do we stop comparing? How do we break the habit?

One thing I can say for sure is that people (and animals… and plants… and even rocks) are not so much like chalices - where one has more water in it, and another has less. The way I like to look at it, we are more like ice cube trays: One square might have a bit more water in it, another square has less… and so for all the million things we know how to do, we are better than others at some, and worse at others.

A simple example is a classical symphony orchestra: One person is very good at the violin, while someone else plays the cello. They could sit all day and try to decide which of them is a better musician; or they could enjoy each other’s talents, and play beautiful music together. But I know that’s very simplified. So here’s another example: Compare two clarinet players, and you will soon see that it is a waste of time to try to determine “who is better”. One of them has a faster tongue. The other one might have faster fingers. One has great high notes, the other might be good at slow, expressive playing. One might be excellent at Balkan music, while the other is good at Western Classical. One might actually be very well-versed in a style of music from a particular village in Crete, while the other might know a different village in Romania.

The same goes for personalities: One person might be a good speaker, while the other might give really good hugs. One might be great at sports, and the other might be great at making practical decisions. One might be comfortable in a crowded room, while the other is comfortable in high-stress situations. We all have our highlights, and our kinks. We all have our unique roles to fill in the world, just like a cat or a bird have their roles to fill in nature. And no end of comparison will ever “win the game” for us.

Sure, we could try to argue that “one ice tray has more water in it overall than the other”. But honestly… I’m not even certain that that applies in the same way to people. And far more importantly, what I do know for sure is that if you go down that path of insisting on comparisons, you lose love. You create barriers. You miss out on what other people have to offer. You miss the joy of filling in each other’s holes and gaps, and making beautiful music together.

And so… good luck :)

Photo by Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas,


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