Entrepreneurs are supposed to be beacons of independence and representative of the willingness to go your own way. Yet everywhere you look, business owners are being asked to size themselves up against a never-ending list of figureheads for success. Why, in a calling so closely tied with self-reliance, do we find such an obsession with mimicking someone else’s life?
Due to the media’s 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 you should never compare your output with anyone else’s.
Here’s you feigning surprise that, in reality, both extremes have it wrong: 😱. While comparison admittedly comes 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 useful way to grow.
Comparison as a thief of joy
Theodore Roosevelt’s belief that comparison is the thief of joy isn't 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 act like 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 a countless list of candidates to be overshadowed by, and 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 do it backstage.
When you always feel like you're 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 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.
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Comparison as a source of learning
Many entrepreneurs start new ventures with a competitive edge already in mind, and all entrepreneurs would do well to develop a moat that differentiates their business from everyone else’s. 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 best 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. 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 says 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
Businesses that attain any modicum of traction invite comparison of their products, their marketing campaigns, and, if they get big enough, even their stock price. When you start a business few things come cheap, but comparison you get for free.
So instead of fighting the current, why not apply this reality where it makes sense? 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.
Illustration by Cornelia Li