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The Trap of Comparison, The Pervasiveness of Problems, & The Necessity of Failure (Reading Notes 6.22.18)

Resource: On the Soul-Sustaining Necessity of Resisting Self-Comparison and Fighting Cynicism: A Commencement Address


Comparing yourself with others has three fundamental problems: 1) It falls prey to the knowledge problem, 2) It leads to the vacating of your own soul, and 3) it leads to cynicism.

You don’t know enough to compare. Every person’s life is pushed or pulled by forces that are invisible to you. Others are happy, sad, challenged, and advantaged in ways that you can never fully access or appreciate. Just as matter is made of mostly empty space, our comparison-based conclusions are made of mostly empty assumptions.
Even if you knew enough to compare, the mere act of doing so ejects you from present moment awareness. It robs you of the possibilities made available to you by focusing on your own goals and imperatives. It’s like using your own money to invest in someone else’s life by putting that money into an investment that’s bound to fail.
When you get caught up in a pattern of comparison, it leads to a sense of hopelessness about your own life. It makes you see the world as a place where everything just comes down to who’s privileged and who’s not.


On the value of the commencement address:

“I have long relished the commencement address as one of our few cultural forms that render us receptive to sincerity — receptive to messages we might dismiss as trite in any other context, but which we recognize here as the life-earned truth of the human being at the podium, shared in a spirit of goodwill with a group of young humans just starting out on the truth-earning gauntlet called life.”

On the soul as seismic core:

“I want to talk to you today about the soul. Not the soul as that immortal unit of religious mythology, for I am a nonbeliever. And not the soul as a pop-culture commodity, that voracious consumer of self-help chicken soup. I mean the soul simply as shorthand for the seismic core of personhood from which our beliefs, our values, and our actions radiate.”

On what is loss during moments of comparison:

“And perhaps the guy has a more satisfying life than I do — perhaps he had a good mother and goes home to the love of his life and plays the violin at night. I don’t know, and I never will. But the point is that the second I begin comparing my pace to his, my life to his, I’m vacating my own experience of that spring day and ejecting myself into a sort of limbo of life that is neither mine nor his.”

On her early days at pen, working four jobs, and the complexities involved in people’s fate:

“I came to Penn straight from Bulgaria, through that same confluence of chance and choice (and, yes, a lot of very, very hard work — I don’t want to minimize the importance of that, but I also don’t want to imply that people who end up on the underprivileged end of life haven’t worked hard enough, because this is one of our most oppressive cultural myth and reality is so much more complex). In any case: When I came to Penn, I had an experience very different from my childhood. Suddenly, as I was working four jobs to pay for school, I felt like everybody else was on an electric bike and I was just pedaling myself into the ground.”

On how comparison leads to cynicism:

“But here’s the thing about self-comparison: In addition to making you vacate your own experience, your own soul, your own life, in its extreme it breeds resignation. If we constantly feel that there is something more to be had — something that’s available to those with a certain advantage in life, but which remains out of reach for us — we come to feel helpless. And the most toxic byproduct of this helpless resignation is cynicism — that terrible habit of mind and orientation of spirit in which, out of hopelessness for our own situation, we grow embittered about how things are and about what’s possible in the world. Cynicism is a poverty of curiosity and imagination and ambition.”

On rational-based hope:

“Today, the soul is in dire need of stewardship and protection from cynicism. The best defense against it is vigorous, intelligent, sincere hope — not blind optimism, because that too is a form of resignation, to believe that everything will work out just fine and we need not apply ourselves. I mean hope bolstered by critical thinking that is clear-headed in identifying what is lacking, in ourselves or the world, but then envisions ways to create it and endeavors to do that.”

On the essence of cynicism and hope:

“In its passivity and resignation, cynicism is a hardening, a calcification of the soul. Hope is a stretching of its ligaments, a limber reach for something greater.”

Strive to be cynical:

“Strive to be uncynical, to be a hope-giving force, to be a steward of substance. Choose to lift people up, not to lower them down — because it is a choice, always, and because in doing so you lift yourself up.”

On developing your own metrics for success:

“Develop an inner barometer for your own value. Resist pageviews and likes and retweets and all those silly-sounding quantification metrics that will be obsolete within the decade. Don’t hang the stability of your soul on them. They can’t tell you how much your work counts for and to whom. They can’t tell you who you are and what you’re worth. They are that demoralizing electric bike that makes you feel if only you could pedal faster — if only you could get more pageviews and likes and retweets — you’d be worthier of your own life.”

On construction versus destruction:

“You may find your fate forked by construction and destruction frequently, in ways obvious or subtle. And you will have to choose between being the hammer-wielding vandal, who may attain more immediate results — more attention — by tearing things and people and ideas down, or the sculptor of culture, patiently chiseling at the bedrock of how things are to create something new and beautiful and imaginative following a nobler vision, your vision, of how things can and should be.”

Why hope is an act of courage and resistance:

“Our culture has created a reward system in which you get points for tearing down rather than building up, and for besieging with criticism and derision those who dare to work and live from a place of constructive hope. Don’t just resist cynicism — fight it actively, in yourself and in those you love and in the communication with which you shape culture. Cynicism, like all destruction, is easy, it’s lazy. There is nothing more difficult yet more gratifying in our society than living with sincere, active, constructive hope for the human spirit. This is the most potent antidote to cynicism, and it is an act of courage and resistance today.”

On being a curator of substance:

“Never let the temptation of marketable mediocrity and easy cynicism rob you of the chance to ennoble public life and enlarge the human spirit — because we need that badly today, and because you need it badly for the survival of your soul.”

Resource: Paper clips and string


There is no perfect system. Everything has bugs, patches, inefficiencies, leaks, and other things that need to be fixed. These problems are worth seeking out and fixing, but you’re in a better position to do that when you accept their existence as a basic fact of life.


On the existence of imperfections and flaws in every system:

“That’s how it works. And it’s a miracle that it works at all. (In fact, architecture, design, all the corners of our culture–it’s an evolving process, with cobwebs, repavings, repairs, potholes and improvements. We’d like to believe in the shiny perfect thing, but it’s rare indeed. Even your smartphone has the wabisabi of unused apps and bugs to be avoided.”

Resource: A professional stumbler


The way we learn to walk is the way we learn everything: trying, failing, adapting, and repeating this process until we get it. We’re all just babies trying to learn to walk. The only difference is that our forms of walking get more sophisticated over time.


“Leo’s working hard to do something he’s never done before. He’s just turned one, and he doesn’t know how to walk (yet). There are no really useful books or videos on how to walk. It’s something he has to figure out on his own. But instead of waiting on the couch until the day he’s ready to proudly strut across the room, he’s there, on the floor, every day, trying it out. He’s already discovered a hundred ways that don’t work, and stumbled countless times. But he persists.”

“I don’t know about you, but this is precisely the way I learned how to walk as well. In fact, it’s the way I learned how to do just about everything important. By doing it.”

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