Brand building through storytelling

What I had to learn about success

Like most people who wouldn’t miss their high school reunions, I went to my twentieth to see how I stacked up compared with my classmates. They used to make me feel so inferior, piling into shiny new Mustangs after school (I trudged home alone, notebooks hugged to my chest), making dates for the prom while I bent over Virgil’s Aeneid.

But I’d show them now. Just wait till they saw how sleek I looked in my skinny evening suit with its leg-baring slit. (Once a chunky gym-class dropout, I’d been sweating up a storm at the Y.) And with my writing career on a roll, I figured I could finally hold my own with the stars in our class: an entrepreneurial whiz, a successful politician and a female VP of a multinational corporation. I swept up to the bar ready to sparkle.

Then I spotted Mike—straggly hair brushing his shoulders, cherry-red bell bottoms that showed every inch of his socks. He had to tell me who he was: that’s how much he’d changed since he dated the prom queen and led the basketball team to victory. He didn’t even sound like the old Mike—more like a tape being played at the wrong speed. Seeing my shock, he explained, “I have an illness, schizophrenia. It runs in my family. I talk like this because I’m on medication. But it’s really helping. Now I’m not hearing voices anymore, and I can work again.”

By most people’s standards, packing boxes part time isn’t much of a job—especially not for a guy who’d once seemed bound for the corridors of power. But for Mike, who hadn’t worked in years, it was a breakthrough to be showing up at nine every morning and paying his own rent. I overheard him telling his story many times that night, always with dignity and grace. Of some 50 baby boomers trading success stories, he may have been the only one who truly knew what it is to succeed—to do the very best you can with what you’ve got, and never mind anyone else. In my book, he’s top of the class.

Mike made me realize that I had a bad habit: measuring my life against other people’s. Snippets of other people’s lives, to be precise. A friend’s terrific new job (why didn’t I go after it?). A neighbour’s up-to-the-minute kitchen reno (so much more counter space than my kitchen). Even, God help me, a fellow exerciser’s flat tummy (guess I should do more sit-ups). Although I looked like a confident grownup, at heart I was still the anxious kid whose hair went frizzy while all the other girls’ hung in silken panels like Marianne Faithfull’s. I’ve managed to curb my comparison habit, but sometimes it still gets me down.

I’d kick myself for being so envious, but that wouldn’t be fair. We’ve all got the comparison habit to some degree.

In fact, psychologist David G. Myers, in his book The Pursuit of Happiness, singles it out as a contentment-killer. “Seldom do we compare ourselves with those below us,” he explains. “More often we compare ourselves with those a rung or two above, those whose level we now aspire to join.” Result: we’re always playing catch-up—and always disappointed with our lot. Myers points to Oakland Athletics outfielder Rickey Henderson. When he heard that the As had signed his teammate Jose Canseco for $4.7 million a year, he complained loudly about his own $3 million salary.

It’s not just our worldly goods that we diminish with why-not-me comparisons. Too often, it’s the people close to us. The new assistant who’s not as fast as her predecessor. The spouse we’d like to send to someone else’s partner for a crash course in listening or lovemaking. The child whose marks don’t measure up to our own way back when.

What drives us isn’t meanness but sheer insecurity. As a lifetime veteran of the comparison game, I’d put the strategy this way: when everything I’ve got is the best, I’ll finally be good enough.

You could call this no-win game our national sport, with the media cheerleaders urging us on in search of younger-looking skin, faster cars and so on. But the way I see it, no multi-zillion-dollar ad campaign can stir the anxious heart with as much you-don’t-cut-it fear as your basic dysfunctional family.

Growing up in such a family, I got the message two ways. I got it at home when my parents, locked in the silent misery of an alcoholic marriage, expressed their frustration by comparing me with my sister (why didn’t I have her sweet temper?) and my sister with me (why didn’t she have my dependability?). With other kids, I reinforced my parents’ fault finding. As I struggled to explain what made their families happier than mine, I targeted the things I could see: station wagons, backyard barbecues, bounding puppies. If we had those things, surely we’d be happy, too.

Now I have what I wanted as a child—not the trappings of fifties-style togetherness, but what they symbolized all along. I love my family and my home, and I’m lucky enough to love my work as well. The trick is learning to enjoy the good life without looking over my shoulder to see who might be gaining on me. It’s comparing myself with only one person: the best self I can be.

When I first started taking yoga classes, I watched the other students more closely than the teacher. It seemed they could all though the floor with the palms of their hands while my fingertips hovered somewhere around my shins. Then I gradually noticed that every student found some poses painfully tough. What’s more, several students had serious health problems, like multiple sclerosis or a heart condition. If they could progress at their own pace, I could, too. I stopped sneaking peaks at other students and concentrated instead on the rhythm of my own breath as my body eased into a pose.

Not long ago, a friend of mine joined the class where I’ve spent more than two years. She graduated to the advanced class after just one session. But I don’t compare myself with my friend, a natural athlete who used to dance professionally. She’s ready to stand on her head. I need more practice standing on my feet, allowing my tight hamstrings to begin to release. One day soon, I’ll get my hands to the floor.

First published in Pathways, November/December, 1993. Copyright Rona Maynard.

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