How to use healthy self-comparison to benefit your career

Are you guilty of ‘comparisonitis‘? Retired British rower and Olympic medallist Annie Vernon explains how you can use comparison to help your career.

As an athlete, it was part of my job description to compete with other people. Competitions, if nothing else, are direct comparisons of your performance against others’, with specific measures of success, viewed by many people. Unless you manage your mindset, this could impact your relationship with other competitors as you might start seeing them as enemies to your success. 

When managed well, comparing yourself to other people in a healthy way can inspire, give you clarity on your pathway, and show you new ways of living. Connecting with other people, whether role models, peers or acquaintances, can be very helpful to your own development and career success. 

Connecting the dots 

I grew up on a Cornish farm, and it’s a strong part of my identity. Even now when I meet other people that grew up on a farm, I feel an immediate rapport because we have shared values. As such, my childhood hero was track-and-field athlete Sally Gunnel because she too grew up on a farm.

I remember watching her win Gold at the Barcelona Olympics as an eight-year-old and the commentator saying, “She learnt to hurdle jumping over hay bales on her parents’ farm”, and I thought, that’s exactly what I did this summer practising for school! This is the thing about role models; it doesn’t matter who they are or what they do, they speak to you in some way and that’s what you latch onto. 

This connection to Sally has repeatedly cropped up and helped me throughout my career. Looking at her journey helped me to realise how I could connect the dots to drive my own career journey and that they were just individual dots that needed to be conquered at each stage. For Sally, her first dot was jumping over straw bales as a child, which started her off on her path to conquer her dot at the Olympic games.

Even when I grew up and got to the stage where I was on the fringes of the Olympic games, when I’d feel imposter syndrome start to kick in, it was comforting to think of how Sally had inspired me as a child.  

The grace to grow 

During my early career, I unfairly compared myself to other people who had been in the sport ten years longer than me. As a 22-year-old athlete at the start of my professional career, I didn’t need to be as good as the 32-year-old athletes. In ten years’, time, yes, but in that moment, no. 

When you’re a teenager, you don’t necessarily think about the long-term. You know where you are, and you know your next steps. When I went to university in Cambridge, there was a strong rowing culture there. I realised I was quite good through benchmarking myself against other people, and I also got to witness the rowing career pathway demonstrated by girls before me, which was hugely helpful.

I used to look at girls who had gone through the Cambridge system and then went on to the British team. Still, I knew this pathway existed and roughly the steps I needed to take, but like everyone I had imposter syndrome. I used to think ‘how could little, old me; this little farming kid from Cornwall, how could I go on to have a senior career in rowing?’ 

For me what helped was having a supportive coach, and, again, breaking down the journey into steps (or dots). My coach was able to give me the tools and support I needed – and encourage me to pursue social activities. 

An example I remember clearly is that one of the girls who used to be on the team had become a senior international, and she came back to visit us. I remember looking at her forearm and thinking, ‘her forearm is the size of my leg, I’ll never be as good as that.’ But when I reflected upon it; when she was my age, she didn’t have these muscles because she wasn’t a full-time international athlete.

When you’re young, you need to remember that you don’t need to be everything at once. You need to give yourself the grace and patience to develop. This skill can serve you throughout your life. 

Stepping into the unknown

Sport is a very simple environment to be in – it has a beginning, middle and an end. It can be a very linear career with a clear pathway. Stepping out of that can be like stepping into a grey morasse of confusion. This is both exciting, as the world is open to you again, but also terrifying. It’s moments like this when looking at what other people are doing, especially those in a similar position to yourself, can be really helpful. 

As I spoke about to Gee Footitt recently on The Switch, a podcast hosted by St James’s Place Financial Adviser Academy, part of my current role in marketing for a careers platform for elite athletes is speaking to a range of athletes who have made the switch from sport into a variety of careers.

I have spoken to ex-athletes who have gone on to set up microbreweries, coffee roasteries or entered banking, financial advice, law, sales, marketing and everything in between. I love getting to hear their stories, learning lessons that I can apply in my own life. 

In many ways having a career change can feel like a step back, but hearing the stories of other career-changers debunks this. Having a varied career can bring rich experience to a new role in ways you might not have anticipated. For example, a footballer who takes a penalty in a stadium of 40,000 people has an immense capability to cope with pressure. Healthy self-comparison allows you to consider which transferrable skills you can bring to a new role. 

My own career change came at a time when my values and priorities were changing. When considering your career you’ve got to ask that question – what do I want my life to look like? Full-time, part-time, self-employed? You need to think about your values as well. You wouldn’t have a personal relationship with someone who didn’t share your values.

Speaking to people in lots of different careers can help you with this. For example, the same great writer might have the skills to be either a script writer or a copy writer, but their decision will depend on how they feel about factors like job security, or working in a team, or working from home. Talking to and looking at different people’s lifestyles can help you make this choice. 

Looking outside your sphere of influence 

When I wrote my book about the psychology of sport, I wanted to bring people into the world of elite sport. I wanted to investigate why a tennis player might fluff a championship point on their service – I wanted to understand what happened in their head to create that. I wasn’t very good at understanding the psychology of sport, so doing the research for my book helped me to become better at explaining it.

Sport isn’t an island; there are so many parallels between what we do in sport and what we do elsewhere in life. As well as looking to people on a similar career path to you for ideas, you can look to those who are completely different and the wisdom they have to offer. 

View other people as sources of wisdom – not enemies

In conclusion, other people should not be viewed as enemies to your success, but sources of wisdom who can support you. Role models can be a source of inspiration, your peers a source of insight and your opponents can shake up your viewpoint. Looking to other people for wisdom can sharpen that competitive edge that will propel you forward in your career, whether sticking to a familiar path or switching it up into something new. 

Author: Annie Vernon is a retired British rower and Olympic medallist, and recent guest on The Switch, a podcast hosted by St James’s Place Financial Adviser Academy.