(Photo above by Jeffrey Czum / Pexels)
Don’t stress out about imaginary timelines.
Someone asks our age and we want to say, “A year past the point of no return.” We look at friends’ fancy jobs, hear an acquaintance name-drop a famous person they work with, scroll through engagement pictures on Instagram and think: I’m not as far along as I should be, and now it’s too late.
Social media has only amplified our fears. According to research published in the Harvard Business Review, the more you use social media, the worse you feel about yourself. This is because social media encourages unfavorable social comparisons that erode self-esteem.
By taking action day after day, challenging ourselves to do even a little more than yesterday, we eventually achieve all of the benchmarks we feel are important to us.
Buddhism teaches, however, that the only person we need to compare ourselves to is the person we were yesterday. If we can outdo the person we were yesterday, even if it’s by taking just one step forward, then we are winning.
Why? Buddhism is about taking action. Even the Sanskrit word, karma, means action. By taking action day after day, challenging ourselves to do even a little more than yesterday, we eventually achieve all of the benchmarks we feel are important to us. So instead of stressing out about our imaginary timelines, we should have confidence that the actions we are taking in this moment will create the future we want to see.
The worse mistake we can make then, according to Buddhism, is to stop taking action. Buddhist teacher Daisaku Ikeda writes:
Nothing is irredeemable in youth. The only real mistake you can make when you are young is giving up on yourself or allowing fear of failure to prevent you from trying to accomplish something. The past is the past; the future is the future. Look to the future and keep moving forward, telling yourself, Everything starts from today—it starts from now, this minute, this moment!
That’s why constantly comparing ourselves to others is so dangerous—because we inevitably find ways to put ourselves down, lose hope and stop taking action.
Though as a society we tend to obsess about young prodigies, the world is filled with people who found success later than expected. Samuel L. Jackson didn’t appear in his breakout role in Pulp Fiction until he was 46. Hip-hop producer EL-P didn’t have a hit record until he was 39. Albert-László Barabási, professor of Network Studies at Northwestern University, compares such relative late-bloomers in his TED Talk. He noticed they all share one thing—tenacity. In other words, as long as we keep moving forward we are bound to create a life that is deeply meaningful and satisfying.
Though as a society we tend to obsess about young prodigies, the world is filled with people who found success later than expected.
Today we are living through a pandemic that has caused seemingly endless setbacks, increasing our anxiety about “falling behind.” However if we refuse to let it rob us of hope and keep moving forward, we can create any life we choose.