Paintings courtesy of Wolf Dancer Studios

“Comparison is the thief of joy.” – Theodore Roosevelt

Just by human nature we compare ourselves to other people. We generally don’t want to do it, but sometimes we just can’t help it. We wind up judging ourselves, letting negative thoughts and feelings enter our minds and affecting our behavior or performance. I struggled with rowing  for a while because of it, until I just started comparing myself to only one person.

School Days

Remember when we were kids and kids would say things to one another (in a sing-song way) like “I’m taller than you are!” Or “My dad could beat up your dad.” Or “I’m faster than you are.” Always followed by “Nah nah nanna nah nah!” Essentially shaming our friends in an attempt to make us feel better about ourselves. I have no professional explanation for this (my daughter-in-law might) but, why the hell would we make someone feel bad just to make ourselves feel better? Time traveling back to my childhood brain, I guess it’s because we compared things about ourselves to other kids, doubted those things about ourselves, and felt inferior, thinking they were better than us.

And then we became teenagers. Oh boy, did things get worse! After we learned, hopefully, that shaming other people wasn’t a nice thing to do, we still had those feelings of insecurity, inferiority, and self doubt when we compared ourselves to others. Now we just internalized our stuff. “I wish I was as good a football player as that guy.” “That girl is too pretty, she’d never go out with someone like me.” Or the quintessential, “Everyone’s going to make fun of me!” Looking back, anyone who had those feelings (I know I did or I wouldn’t be writing this stuff) must think about how those feelings held us back in many ways.  Comparison, holding us back and keeping us from knowing what we could achieve if we had only taken the chance.

Grown Ups

And then we became adults. Hopefully things got better but, we still compare ourselves and self-judge from time to time, don’t we? Oh no, wait, we don’t? It’s just me!? (See what I did there?) Through experience we manage to overcome some of those feelings like “I’ll never get my dream job,” or “If I ask her to marry me she’s gonna say no.” We do find a job and do get married and do adult things (whatever that may be for you). But throughout our adult life we sometimes still manage to pass judgement on ourselves by comparison. “The neighbors have a nicer car than us.” “I don’t have enough money.” “I’m too fat.” “I’m too skinny.” It’s human nature and it’s a constant struggle.

Rowing Is No Different

When I started rowing I was happy go lucky not knowing the first thing about rowing. I watched videos on technique and got a little better. I would do follow along workouts I found on YouTube. I’d row, get sweaty, get my heart rate up, and be done. Nothing with a lot of direction. But my love for rowing grew and I wanted to get more serious about it. So I took it up a notch and joined ROW-20, an online, FaceBook Live, 20 day rowing program, led by Austin Hendrickson of Training Tall. Wow, my rowing improved but, the “C” word came back pretty quick – COMPARISON! Part of the fun of ROW-20 was our team members posting our results, proud of our progress. And when I started reading some of the others’ results and how much better they were than me, that feeling crept in – “I suck at rowing!” A feeling of inferiority with no basis in fact. Never the less, it crept in. 

And Then It Got Worse

Last September I purchased a Concept2 ergometer, (rowing machine) “erg.”  I love this machine. One of the great things about it is you can upload your workout results to an online logbook. It gives you the ability to analyze your results in many ways. And, if you feel  competitive (and you know I do) you can have your benchmark rows (500M, 1000M, 2K…etc.) ranked against other rowers across the entire globe. (Uh oh, here it comes again, right?) All right so I know I’m 66, and not going to compete against world class 20-something year old rowers BUT, I can filter the results by age and gender so I could see how I COMPARED to the guys my age around the world. And then it happened again – “I suck at rowing!” was back! Guys my age or older beating my 2K time by way over a minute. I mean, if we were on the water, they’d have finished, put their boat up and be enjoying a beer by the time I crossed the finish!

I became obsessed with the outcome and not the process (see my earlier blog on that). I just wanted to have better times! I lost focus on my fitness goals and my performance didn’t improve.

Joy Theft

I love rowing and the ugly thoughts of comparisons were ruining my joy. Then, one day during a ROW-20 session, Coach Austin told the group that a taller person is always going to beat a shorter person on the erg. What?!? This did not sit well with me – I’m only 5’7” I was doomed!!! But there’s physics behind this, folks. Height and weight are an advantage for a taller person on the erg. Assuming all things being equal like fitness and technique, a taller person is most likely going to weigh more and be able to generate more power when pushing. Additionally, the drive length will be longer. So, rowing at equal strokes per minute, the taller person will row more meters, or “go further,” per stroke.

Anyway, it finally dawned on me that I can’t compare myself to others. Not to my ROW-20 colleagues, and not to the Concept2 Logbook athletes. I don’t know anything about these people. (I mean, I know my ROW-20 friends but I’ve never met them and don’t know anything about them physically) The people I was blindly comparing myself to may be taller, weigh more or may be amazingly physically fit. So I stopped comparing.

Me vs. Me

The only person I compare myself to now is myself. And I’m way happier for it. I do love a challenge and love competing against myself. I log all my workouts. I use data from the logs to set goals for new workouts so that I know I will have to give my best effort each day. I write them on a whiteboard and hang it on the wall right in front of my face. It’s all part of the process and it is the process of rowing that I take joy in. It’s rowing with a purpose. And rowing with a purpose has taken my physical fitness to new heights, improving my cardio and toning my body in ways I didn’t think possible for me at age 66.

But the best part? The best part is that from now on I’ll be able to see my colleagues results and feel their joy, too.

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