Everywhere you look, business owners are being commanded to size themselves up against a ceaseless list of avatars for survivorship bias. Why aren’t you following Elon Musk’s exact morning routine, you filthy peasants!
It’s gotten completely out of control. Entrepreneurs are supposed to be beacons of independence and representative of the willingness to go your own way. Why, then, the obsession around mimicking someone else’s life?
Due to an unfortunate doubling-down on this shallow entrepreneurial infotainment, there’s an anti-trend forming around avoiding comparison, full stop. Feel-good affirmations in the form of tweets and quote graphics are now equally forceful in insisting that you should never compare your output with anyone else.
Here’s you feigning surprise that, in reality, both extremes have it wrong: 😱. While comparison admittedly comes bundled with its fair share of emotional risks, the truth is it's an unavoidable part of building a business; in fact, comparison can even be a tactically useful way to grow.
Comparison as a thief of joy
Theodore Roosevelt’s belief that comparison is the thief of joy is not one I’d argue against. I’d only add an addendum: the wrong type of comparison is the real source of the problem.
Unhealthy comparisons resemble a balance scale, where an ambitious person weighs their accomplishments against peers or personal heroes. This exercise will always leave you feeling like the perpetual silver medalist. There’s an infinite list of candidates to be overshadowed by, and because you lack any semblance of context, it’s easy to forget what you see in public is a hand-curated highlight reel of positivity. Everyone deals with mistakes, stress, and failure; they just happen backstage.
When you perceive yourself as consistently coming up short, you're sure to bankrupt your enthusiasm and motivation. But it gets worse: comparison can also be a thief of success. When you become “too inspired,” you move from proactive, forward-thinking ideas to a reactive to-do list. We need to act on this, the biggest player in our space already has! Meanwhile, at the Legion of Doom their headquarters, a meeting is taking place on how said thing was actually a complete waste of time.
Despite myriad reasons to stay far away from comparison, I’m still not willing to abandon the practice completely. Comparing and contrasting the various traits of what currently exists in the world can be a wholesome way to learn with the right mindset.
Comparison as a source of learning
Many entrepreneurs start new ventures with a competitive edge already in mind. All entrepreneurs would do well to develop a moat that differentiates their business from everyone else. But if you plan to capitalize on what’s missing in the world, it pays to ask: How can you notice the gaps if you haven’t filled in the areas around them?
Knowing what’s currently out there is the one true way to develop a keen eye for quality. From this growing library of experience you can begin to see what’s tired and overdone, what’s fresh, and what’s missing.
The importance of keeping your finger on the pulse doesn’t go away after you’ve made your first few sales, or even your first thousand. Technology, customer sentiments, and industry trends collectively make “useful,” “novel,” and “delightful” qualifiers that are constantly shifting. Most of what you produce, from new products to marketing strategies, will eventually be copied and, ultimately, become commonplace. As I’ve written before: Even a purple cow can't stand out once the whole herd goes lavender.
There’s also the matter of misplaced energy. As Marty Neumeier observes in his book The Brand Gap, creative people “describe how [the world] could be. Their thinking is often so fresh that they zag even when they should zig.” That’s a nice self-congratulatory pat on the back, but the message is fiercely true: prioritizing the work to be done in your business also means applying creative rigor where it truly matters.
Sometimes “best practices” really are the best practice, and you’ll only come to know them by studying what other entrepreneurs are already doing. Why force yourself to innovate in an area of your business that you’re not looking to compete in? Why not simply excel by using what’s been proven to work?
Those who build
Stores that attain any modicum of traction invite comparison of their products, their advertising campaigns, and, if they get big enough, even their stock price. When you start a product-based business nothing comes cheap, but comparison you get for free.
So instead of fighting the current, why not apply this unavoidable facet of running a business where it suits you? Compare to learn, compare to earn. But always remember those who build, your kind, are uniquely suited to deliver what the world wants. You shouldn’t let comparison tell you otherwise.