Comparing vs. referencing

A year ago, I appeared as a guest on Nick Wignall’s Minds and Mics podcast to discuss my work with the book that would become Creative Doing. Our conversation was focused on practical creativity, and about halfway through we stumbled across an interesting topic: social comparison and creativity.

In particular, we discussed the benefits and drawbacks of comparing yourself with other people. There’s a quote attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, “Comparison is the thief of joy,” and I made the case that comparison was also the thief of creativity. Once you compare yourself to somebody, you’re set on trying to compete with them.

Nick made the case that comparison could be used constructively; at times, when he experienced creative stagnation or a plateau, he’d read something someone else wrote and feel inspired, and imitate their style, their way of doing something, or a technique. He says: 

It led to me improving my writing, and me growing, and becoming more creative, actually; working that style into my own style in a way that was unique and authentic to me, even though it came externally. It seems to me like there is a productive, helpful, way of using comparison. But it can easily become destructive too, so, how do you know the difference? 

If you’re a painter, and you’re browsing Instagram [profiles] of other painters, how do you know whether you’re doing it for genuine inspiration and growth? Or how do you know whether it’s going to be destructive, and make you feel worse about yourself or something like that? What’s going on there?

What Nick describes, to me, sounds like referencing. You’re not looking to outperform, or even to gauge expectations about how things are turning out; instead, you’re looking for new ways to improve your craft

It’s a subtle, and incredibly important, difference. Whether you use the word, “Comparison,” or “Reference,” whenever you focus on the craft, and learning, it’s always a good thing. It’s always good to see how other people are doing things and getting out of your own head or myopia. From a competitive perspective, it’s similar to René Lacoste taking copious notes on his opponents and studying their way of playing. (I found this out from 50 Cent’s Hustle Harder, Hustle Smarter.)

If you’re practicing in the spirit of studying the craft with—not measuring yourself against—someone else, it’s usually worth trying. If you’re not sure, just see how you feel after. If your attitude is open and expansive, you’re referencing; if your attitude is negative and closed, you’re comparing.

Inspired by Pete Code’s “Don’t compare yourself to other entrepreneurs.” Also, Luke Burgis’s Wanting is worth checking out. See also Khe Hy’s piece on envy.

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