9 minute read
Darn, I thought I made up the word comparisonitis myself. It ends up someone else beat me to it. I can’t even be first in making up a word.
Comparisonitis: The compulsion to compare one’s accomplishments to another’s to determine relative importance. — Wiktionary
I’ve never kept score between myself and my friends. I come from a large family. If I kept score of every perceived slight or outright deception, I would have no siblings. With friends that is even more true. If anything, I let people take mulligans more often than I should. I’m not a scorekeeper in the way other’s treat me.
However, I have been a meticulous scorekeeper for the way I treat myself, and that is most true when I compare my success to others. Until recently, I never compared favorably for any length of time.
Comparisonitis in My Previous Careers Drove Me To Be Better…But Never Satisfied
Comparing myself and my progress to others drove me to do more, learn more, work harder, be better, to climb that career ladder and prove my worth. If I felt I was being overlooked I would make sure those above me took notice. Not by shouting “look at me.” As an introvert that’s not my style. But I would work harder and longer, without complaint, than anyone else and that got me noticed. If they wanted me to fly overseas after being home for only a day, I always did it. If they had a problem that required me to stay in the office for a week to solve, I always did it. And I did get noticed and I advanced.
As I moved up the ladder it became even more difficult, more problematic, and took more time away from other things that were important to me — family, church, friends. In the beginning I had a singular focus to write the best code, to invent the new process to help educate developmentally disabled children, to get the most grant money, to write the best textbooks. Then it became to be the best boss — the manager, the Dean, the CIO — to make a six-figure salary and more.
Each step along the way I grew further from what really made me content with life. I changed careers and focus. In spite of accomplishing each of my goals in the context of each career, it was never enough. There was always something more I could do — someone who was doing better.
The Comparisonitis Crash
When I left those careers and I was no longer willing to fly half way around the world to make the same money, I decided to finally pursue my dream of being a full time writer. I settled in to the building phase of that new career. I gave myself five years to become successful.
After my fifth book I found myself once more afflicted with comparisonitis.
I didn’t understand why I wasn’t making more money. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t hitting bestseller lists. I did everything gurus and pundits said I should do. So, I decided to study people in my genre who had “made it.” Then I went a step further and studied people in other genres. Maybe I needed to change genres. I bought more books and took more courses to learn how to be successful in the new publishing environment. I set new goals for SEO, marketing, advertising, branding, writing faster, networking, creating new products from my content and more.
And…I stopped writing. I stopped doing the one thing I loved most about my new career — creating stories — in order to try to become bigger.
One would think I’d learned my lesson. But no. Comparisonitis was an addiction. Once my goal of five years came without my expectations being met, the disease came roaring back to infect me again. Fortunately, two years ago — after some huge reminders around health consequences for me, my husband and several friends my age — I realized I was going to die and I’d still be suffering from comparisonitis. And no amount of money or fame would bring me back from the dead.
I decided to take a step back and re-evaluate what I was using as measures of success? And were those measures what really mattered to me?
Was the Comparison Data I Collected Based in Truth or Perception?
In this age of social media and advertising, there are always self-made millionaire gurus who have defined success based on their personal experience and will share it for a hefty fee. It is also true that writers pushing hard to be at that top of their game share only a small bit of their truth and often leave the rest to generous interpretation.
I noticed, for instance, that many novelist were labeled as “award-winning” authors. My assumption was they had so many major genre or national awards that they couldn’t name them all. Award winning was the best way to capture that accomplishment.
I had won some small literary awards early in my career: Best novel in a romance series; Best SF dystopian. I even made the Amazon Bestseller list for one of my books for a couple of days. However, I judged them not to be worthy of mentioning because no one would know those organizations, except a few hundred people who belonged to them or the other novelists who submitted. As for the Amazon bestseller designation, I couldn’t in good conscience put that down when I knew it was only for a few days and based on sudden velocity.
Upon further research, I realized many of the authors who labeled themselves “award winning” were withholding mentioning their specific awards for the same reasons I never touted my awards. Those who did win major genre or national awards named the award clearly on their books or in the bios. My perception was that I wasn’t worthy in compared to so many award winning authors. What I learned is that some people, in my mind, stretched the truth.
What about “International Best Seller?” What did that mean? My assumption was that it meant the author had sold tens of thousands of books outside of the United States. That is true for some authors. However, for many it means they received a top 100 ranking in a small category in one country outside the U.S. It may be that they sold only 20 books in Poland that day but, with fewer English speakers and an esoteric category, it was enough to rank them in the top 100 that week. Certainly that may be something to be celebrated, but it was not even close to my assumptions about what that meant in terms of success. This is not to say that every author who labels their book “International Best Seller” achieved it that way. But my research revealed it was true for a lot of authors.
Something similar happened when I did more research into how some authors achieved their six figure incomes. Some were simply in business longer than me, better genre writers, and had spent decades building their business. However, many of the comparators I’d used — people I judged to be my peers — after sharing the whole truth with me, I realized they were talking gross sales not profit. Once they deducted all their costs for getting that book out, including their massive advertising costs, their profit was anywhere from a third to half of what they touted. I’d been comparing my profit to their gross sales.
Here Were My Failures of Comparison
Comparing my truth to their marketing. Whether it is on websites, social media, or in conversation, I only saw what that person wanted me to see. No one tells the whole truth, including me, in their marketing. Everyone wants to project an impression of success. No one talks about the downturns, the weeks or years they had to take a second job to continue to be “successful.” Most of them don’t outright lie but they present those truths in the best light that are likely to be interpreted as success.
Comparing my muddy middle to someone else’s end game. The truth is there are many people doing better at this writing business than me. I know I can’t compare myself to the huge successes — J.K. Rowling, Nora Roberts, or James Patterson. Not only have they been in the game full time for decades longer than me, but they also made some strategic choices I didn’t and probably never will make. For example, for the first decade or more, each of these authors stayed in one genre and built their readership over time. I began writing in two genres and now write in four genres. This is a decision I made, which means I really have four different careers from a marketing perspective.
Writing success is based on the long tail. I knew the statistics about the first three years of any business being when it is most likely to fail. So I gave myself five years. I also had very specific annual income numbers in my head by which my success could be measured. This was based on a variety of pundits and a few authors I knew who had achieved these goals. Five books was $10K. Eight books was $25K, and twenty books was $50K. I have twenty books published. I am not making fifty-thousand dollars per year. In good years, I’m making half that. But there are lots of reasons for that — different genres, different focus, different decisions, different funding. Like in any business, there is never only one thing you can point to and say: “If you change that you will succeed.” It is always a combination of factors unique to that business and that author.
The one thing that has proved consistent for me is the long tail. That means that something I wrote six years ago, that didn’t gain traction back then, suddenly starts selling this year. Tastes change, reader interests veer in a new direction, and trends come around again. As long as I keep my stories out there and make sure people can find them, every book still has a chance.
But I DO still need to create new content. What I don’t need to do is kill myself trying to put out six or more books every year and ignore everything else in my life.
I Can Only Be the Best Me Possible
There will always be someone more talented, better prepared, better funded, and offered more opportunities than me. That’s a reality I’ve had to accept if I want to stay in this business. No amount of whining or changing to compete with that will make me a better or more successful writer.
Stalking the success of others was putting me in a position where I could only fail. No matter how hard I tried I could never be exactly like them. Often we weren’t writing in the same genre. They had different preparation, different life experiences, and made different decisions along the way. No amount of patterning my career after theirs could yield the same results.
Instead of worrying about what I didn’t have. I needed to look at what I DO have going for me. I have readers who love what I write. People who send me personal emails to tell me how a work of fiction entertained them, gave them something to think about, or made an impact in their personal life. I even have a few who have told me that my nonfiction has done the same.
After years of lost opportunities, lost income, and investing in the wrong things by trying to create an ill-fitting copycat author business, I stopped comparing and started building a new business based on the truth behind my choices, instead of perceptions of whether it would lead to success.
I evaluated why I don’t choose to write straight down the middle of the genre. Why did I continuously choose to write in four genres instead of one? What were common themes among my stories? What feedback had my fans given me that made me feel good about my writing? Could I incorporate and deliver on those themes more consistently?
It took about a year to answer those questions honestly. But once I did I was able to write again and I felt good about the stories I was telling. More than that I enjoyed writing again. Not that it was easy. It never is. But it wasn’t the slog it had become.
Instead of setting goals that are based on other people’s ideas of success, like making a six figure income or being a NYT bestselling author, I’ve set goals that I need to hit, and that includes goals that add real value to my daily life. I need to make a certain income to pay my bills and take an occasional vacation. I need to have time to spend away from writing and enjoy other parts of my life that are important to me. I need to get joy out of my writing, because without joy there is no reason to be doing it.
I can’t honestly say I never suffer from comparisonitis any more. I still do. It’s an addiction I fed for more than forty years and it will always be a part of me. However, I don’t act on it anymore. I only let it distract me for a few hours–okay sometimes a few days. I give it enough time to double-check if there is a real learning question behind it that will propel me forward, or if it is my old nemesis of buying into someone else’s goals for success.
My dream is still alive and I’m satisfied with my progress. I am meeting my needs. I think that’s a darn good place to be.