“One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.”
One commonly-discussed habit of successful people is having successful friends. Indeed, having a network of people who are all kicking ass is a very effective way of realizing that most limits are self-imposed and can be a consistent source of inspiration.
However, there are times where I’ve found this influence to be of more harm than good; Sometimes knowing that my friends or colleagues are (seemingly) miles ahead of me can be a source of anxiety. And I’m not just talking about common jealousy either — I’m referring more to an overwhelming feeling that I am falling further and further behind.
I find this happens to me when:
- I’m in between “next big things” and considering what to do next. (i.e. I do not currently have a mission.)
- Ironically, after a minor success of my own — it’s all too easy to look at the successes of others and feel like what I’m doing is insignificant.
This is one of the stupidest and most counterproductive habits that I’ve encountered in myself, but I still often fall prey to it. Between the influence of my friends’ own success stories, the constant bombardment of “dream big” messages feeding in from Facebook and Twitter, and the media deluge of startups going gangbusters, it’s very easy to feel like I’m marching to the frenzied beat of someone else’s drum.
In an ideal world, one would always be inspired and happy that one’s peers are doing so well. However, we are all human, and fear and jealousy have been hot topics since the very dawn of literature. (Go back and read the Epic of Gilgamesh sometime — compare him to your average startup CEO and you’ll probably find they have very similar neuroses.)
The thing is, I don’t want to feel this way. So, like with any other negative habit, I’ve practiced some ways of training myself out of it. Here are some techniques I’ve found to be effective:
- Disconnect. Pick a strategic hour (or longer) and detach yourself from the internet. In the absence of other signals, my own to come through a lot stronger.
- Live in the present. Go outside, go for a walk, just focus on what is happening around you. Look at the trees, watch what other people are doing, imagine what their lives are like. Immerse yourself in the everyday details of life. If you find your mind racing to other people, the future, the past, anything that’s not your immediate environment — smile, take a deep breath, and refocus on the present moment.
- Think of the origin of the universe. (Seriously.) Think about the fact that, many billions of years ago, the universe exploded outwards for some reason we cannot fathom (or perhaps no reason at all), and that it somehow evolved to the point that your life is now possible. Remember how small you are. Remember that, if your mission fails, it’s not going to alter the course of the universe for the worse. You are doing what you’re doing for your own edification. Detach your self-worth from your list of accomplishments, and see your work instead as a vehicle for self-fulfillment — not guilt.
- Try to reframe your feelings of inadequacy into feelings of friendly competition. If you know you have a friend who is making 3x more money than you or has a greater influence than you do and it’s bothering you, think to yourself “I’m totally going to beat her at this, and then we’ll share a laugh when I do.” Maybe even call the person up and tell them so in a joking manner.
- Do something unusual. If you have a television show or a favorite band or a workout or something that you always lean on in times of stress, do something else instead. Listen to some acid jazz, read some gothic pagan literature, go out and swim or play football or do some other physical activity that you never do. The initial feeling of discomfort and then the subsequent buzz of learning a new thing can really help bring your positive focus back.
- Be honest. If you catch yourself in a moment of weakness and your reaction is to go post something inanely inspiring on Facebook (“Life is amazing and the universe is made of pink sparkles that turn into money trees when they hit the ground!”), think about how much value that message is actually adding to the lives of people who are possibly feeling the same way as you. Go have a quick, in-person conversation with a friend about something totally unrelated to your immediate feelings of inadequacy. Talk about something abstractly interesting or just catch up on life.
- Remember that all of your friends are probably feeling the same way. Think about stupid that is. Commit yourself to not adding to the stupidity by breaking the cycle yourself.
I consider myself very lucky to have so many ambitious and admirable people in my universe; I don’t want feelings of negativity to detract from even one moment of my relationships with them. These are some of the techniques I’ve found that have helped me meet that goal, and I hope they’ll help you too.