Success dysmorphia

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I was talking with my good friend Erik Proulx last month about the various projects we are working on. Erik is the creator of Lemonade, a documentary about laid off ad agency employees who remade their lives. He is working on a follow up film called Lemonade: Detroit about the disarming resilience of a city that can no longer rely on a single industry for its livelihood, and the entrepreneurial strengths of those who are reinventing themselves and their communities.

We share an unhealthy love for our iPhones. And occasionally spend hours lost in an Internet haze, instead of working on important projects. Our undeleted gmail message counts sometimes approach the GDP of small countries.

We are also parents of young children.

As we talked, both of us were bemoaning our productivity. And noting our peers (like our dear buddy Jonathan Fields) who seem to have no problem cranking out tens of thousands of words a month, while meditating every morning, feeding their kids handmade pasta while helping with homework, making money in their sleep and undoubtedly performing back flips in bed.

My fellow author sister in arms and all-around great human being Gretchen Rubin had her Happiness Project featured on Jeopardy, for goodness sakes.

We were feeling like slackers.

Then I stepped back and looked at what Erik had done in the past few months.

  • He had created a movement of independent film producers who were donating money to fund the creation of Lemonade: Detroit
  • He had filmed and edited all the footage for the short film, using Detroit-based talent
  • He had been featured in a whole array of press about the project
  • He had taken on a love and vision of Detroit so strong that it was moving people to tears
  • He had continued to take on consulting gigs to contribute his share to the household of his smart, lovely and hilarious wife Kathryn and their two children
  • He had, to the best of my knowledge, made a lot of people laugh and feel better by connecting with them on social media
  • He had loved and cherished his kids

I had been quite busy myself:

  • Creating new products, co-teaching amazing people at Lift Off and Career Invention and totally changing my business model
  • Working on ideas for two new books
  • Taking care of my kids while my husband was away most weeks building his business
  • Continuing to coach, speak and get press about Escape from Cubicle Nation
  • Writing articles and blurbs for a bunch of books
  • Starting training martial arts again, after a long hiatus

And it struck me that we both had a serious case of success dysmorphia. No matter how much we accomplished, when we looked at ourselves through the mirror of our peers and colleagues, we felt awkward, less-than and not quite to par.

When you view your success through someone else’s mirror:

  • There is always something bigger.
    Oprah was not content with a massively successful show, she needed a network.
  • You could always make more money.
    Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man and hopefully a distant relative, wants to increase his wealth.
  • There is always someone with a hotter body.
    Demi Moore spent years obsessing over her figure
  • There is always someone who sells more books.
    Not content with creating a movement with Four Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss smashed sales on his second book Four Hour Body
  • There is always someone who is a more attentive parent.
    Rachael Ackelin totally overhauled her design business while raising and homeschooling four kids.

Time for a new mirror.

We need to find new ways to define and celebrate our success.

Otherwise, we will wake up at the end of our life, and find that we were so busy chasing someone else’s vision that we forgot to truly live.

Erik, Jonathan, Gretchen, Oprah, Carlos, Tim, Demi, Rachel — I love and celebrate you all. More power to you for pushing yourselves to grow, produce and contribute.

Your success is perfect in my eyes.

And so, now, is mine.

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45 Responses to “Success dysmorphia”

  1. […] Success dysmorphia. I’ve linked to this before, but it’s come up for me a bit recently. An oldie but goodie from the amazing Pam Slim about how we need to find new ways of defining success rather than chasing other people’s vision. […]

  2. […] up one morning and read exactly what I needed to see – Pam Slim’s blog post on what she calls Success Dysmorphia, which is when ambitious folks like you and me look around us and feel like we don’t measure up. […]

  3. Anne says:

    You make several good points. Kudos to any parent who can fully focus on the needs of her children while modeling a healthy lifestyle that may or may not include a career at that particular time. Another aspect that many of us find helpful, I think, is the personal faith in God that can help keep priorities in balance.

  4. […] morning and read exactly what I needed to see – Pam Slim’s blog post on what she calls Success Dysmorphia, which is when ambitious folks like you and me look around us and feel like we don’t measure up. […]

  5. Sometimes we have to pause and ask if we are happy at that given time and place. This helps us realize our previous decisions have led us to happiness.

    All too often we are told happiness is something you have to perpetually pursue. Work harder for the new car. Work harder for the new house. Work harder for a better body. Why do some people want us to believe happiness is always something pending?

    Take 10 seconds now and ask if you are happy at this given time and place.

  6. Maria says:

    What a brilliant post Pam! Love love love it. I grinned at the iPhone comment. I actually had mine stolen recently and that was a huge blessing in disguise. I realized I had become an addict! Happy to report rehab is going well 🙂

    I remember my the first session I ever had with a life coach and I was crying while listing all the terrible things in my life and how I had manage to s%*# up my life and I was a failure etc — all of this by my mid twenties — and he turned around and said: Maria you must start counting your blessings.

    Your post reminded me of that conversation. We all have the comparison gene, or at least most of us, and the not good enough thoughts. The way I keep them in check is to end my day with three success for the day and three things I am grateful for. And it’s working!

    Thank you for the reminder Pam 🙂

  7. Awesome post!!!!!We are always compared ourselves to colleagues or the last message is great. It ‘s just learn to let go and enjoy the ride.

  8. Fascinating take on a subject I’ve often thought about. I think you elegantly highlight two essentials for perspective: distance (time away from thinking about your success or otherwise) and difference (seeing it from a different perspective – preferably someone else’s).

    Nice reminder.

  9. Early on when I started working for myself, I used to hit this wall quite often: “When you view your success through someone else’s mirror there is always something bigger.”

    I’d worry about what the competition was doing and how I wouldn’t be able to catch up or compete. But I had a really good friend who kept me moving. Kept me focused. Told me, never to worry about what others are doing because I’m doing bigger and better (unique) things. I finally listened to that voice one day.

    And so each day I live through my philosophy for success:

    1.) Clear Goals
    2.) Hard Work
    3.) Unwavering Focus – though sure, sometimes I need a lil kick in the butt to get back into focus here 🙂

  10. […] Success Dysmorphia Viewing success through someone else’s mirror leaves you feeling grossly inadequate–how do we find new ways to define and celebrate our success? […]

  11. Oh Pam, dead on, sister. It’s there in our faces all the time, what a nice manicured mountain of GRASS she has, and it’s somehow always so damn green, too. You’re right. It does take notes to self or several bitch-slaps to wake up and realize our own work, quiet or celebrated, is something to applaud.

  12. Great post. We are always comparing ourselves to either our peers, or our last great post. Just have to learn to let go and enjoy the journey.

  13. Jesús says:

    Nice article. I usually take one day of and don’t work so I can have more perspective of what I’m doing, where I’m going and if what I’m doing is the best that I can do!

  14. Someone told Detroit to wake up. I first saw this in some of the car commercials. This post reaffirms the reawakening

  15. It’s like this – what is success “supposed” to look like? There’s a whole lot of anxious striving in pursuit of what we don’t have when what we have is pretty terrific. Recently a client told me that in her perfect life, she’d live in luxury. I asked her to define that, and… she couldn’t. Isn’t that interesting? She’s aiming for something she can’t even name.

    Pam, you are a raging success. An expert in so many areas, generous to a fault, an engaged mother, a wonderful wife, a constant friend. When I look in the dictionary under “success”, I see your picture. You are flat out amazing. And I am not at all biased.


  16. Andy says:

    Hi Pam,

    What do you think of that?


  17. […] Success Dysmorphia “And it struck me that we both had a serious case of success dysmorphia. No matter how much we accomplished, when we looked at ourselves through the mirror of our peers and colleagues, we felt awkward, less-than and not quite to par.” […]

  18. Andy Pels says:

    Thanks for reminding me to remember the things I am great at and have kicked ass on, even small things I am the best in the world at. I am fortunate to have some good friends whose professional accomplishments make mine seem insignificant by comparison. I guess this has forced me to learn to be fair with myself when it comes to perspective, so I can not only maintain a good attitude, but also maintain my friendships with those darned showoffs. 😉

  19. I keep a “What I Did” list that I write every day for this exact reason. I am quite capable of forgetting what I did this morning by the end of the day, and believing that I got nothing done!

    This doesn’t completely prevent me from comparing myself unfavorably to others, but at least it gives me a semi-objective record I can look back on when I’m feeling inadequate.

  20. As much success as you’ve had it’s great that you shared with us that even you have some doubts every now and again. I do very much the same thing and need to remind myself how much I do each and every day, week, month and year.

  21. Susan says:

    I hate that I have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome but grateful that it forces me to keep a steady pace. Every time I think I’m not accomplishing enough, I look around and see all that I have done. And quite frankly, I’m amazed! It’s all getting done, even if I don’t push myself over the edge, oddly. I’m tired of that. Slow and steady. I still see results every day that I can be proud of.

  22. Great post! I find I sometimes get so caught up in my “To Do” list that I don’t give my self credit for my “Done” list…so now I do actually keep a little list of accomplishments that I can reference and add to. I started it to make writing my holiday newsletters easier each year – LOL – but now it has proven to be a good reminder to myself throughout the year, as well.

  23. Darren says:

    I agree that it’s so easy to feel inadequate when we measure ourselves against others.

    I think it’s better to admire the successes of others, but not obsess over them. Unless part of you really wants to accomplish the same things they did.

    If not, then we should continue to focus on what we want to accomplish.

    Then it’s easier to celebrate our own victories.

  24. terri says:

    This was a timely article. At my recent college reunion one of my classmates stated “our classmate, XYZ, is the most accomplished woman I know…” Not a particularly sensitive comment to that group of over-achievers. I’m sure most of us spent the next week trying to find cracks in XYZ’s armor. With any luck i’ll find out she has gained 60 pounds since graduation. Oh, right, I’m not supposed to wish that…

  25. Excellent. Insightful. Reassuring. I am now a fan.

  26. This was exactly what I needed to read! It’s very easy for me to feel inadequate compared to others who are farther ahead or more successful as I work on building my blog and writing my book. Always helpful to be reminded that comparing doesn’t lead to anything good. We all just need to move ahead, bit by bit. Thanks Pam!

  27. Jon Thomas says:

    Thanks for this, Pam. I rush around doing so many things yet I measure my success against others. I’ll try your new mirror on for a change…

  28. Erik Proulx says:

    The only reason it becomes hard to live by my own rules is because there are people like you and Jonathan who are doing so much for so many. Yes, it can be frustrating to compare. But it’s also very motivating to appreciate what others are doing. The trick, as you so eloquently prescribed, is to not look at others’ success as a mirror, but as a lit fire under the ass of complacency. Thank you for this post, Pam.

  29. Joely Black says:

    This was exactly what I needed to be reminded of today! I think it also applies if you’re feeling jealous of somebody’s success. It’s a little reminder from life that your focus could do with a bit of a shift.

  30. Gail says:

    Each of us is a celeb-in-training. It’s important to celebrate our own success and to catch ourselves when we go comparison shopping to the “we are not as good/prolific/profitable as xyz” store. Striving, each of us in our own way, is brave, admirable and worthy in its own right. Thanks Pam for another illuminating post!

  31. It’s a lovely sentiment that a change in perspective will make us feel better. It’s a start to be sure, but it takes more than that. When our self-worth and esteem are connected to our accomplishments when compared to others we’re in trouble.

    I love your work and the stand you take about living a fulfilled life.

    It starts with being okay with your path and your results.

  32. And, the funny thing is, I look at you and Erik and say, “damn, they are doing such cool things in the world, inspiring!” 😉

  33. Hi Pam!

    Has anyone else read this in the same way I did. When I got to the end of the first section. Just before the paragraph that starts… “And it struck me that we both had a serious case of success dysmorphia. ”

    Up to this point, I was thinking, “When we look through our own mirror and not that of our peers, that is when we see things as so small.”

    Think about this. We look at others. We see the grand and wonderful things they have done, ideas they have created, and lives they have changed. But when we look at ourselves we only see small, inconsequential, and “No bid deal.”

    What we need is a peer reviewer! Our peers can look at us through their mirrors and tell us what we are really doing. They can so often see our successes, achievements, and strengths better than we can.

    But you went the other direction. A sorta of don’t look through others eyes, but your own approach. It was a great way to look at it, but I just couldn’t see it that way. I think we are often our worst critic, harsh slave driver, and mean boss. But maybe that is just me. CHUCKLES

  34. Thanks Pam! Wonderful reminder that success, like beauty, comes from within…. and that we often don’t give ourselves enough credit for what we do accomplish, choosing to focus on what we don’t. Other’s stories are great to see when we use them for inspiration, not comparison.

  35. Marilyn says:

    So do you use regular flour in your homemade pasta or do you go for the semolina? I personally like a mix…

    Oh Pam, you are my hero. This is a great post. There is aways a “bigger boat”

    Keep on rocking the free world.


  36. Jenny Shih says:

    Thanks for this reminder, Pam. I just finished watching the second-to-last episode of Oprah and have been blown away by the fame of someone so amazing that the most famous people in the world joined her to celebrate her 25 years in television. And to think she’s off to do things even bigger.

    We are each on our own journey, aren’t we? There is never a DONE. Never a PERFECT. Never GOOD ENOUGH. Yet it always is all of those things. Done for right now. Perfect as it is right now. Good enough for now. As if we had another way to look at it…

    Here’s to celebrating the successes of everything we do, even if it’s something small or just the start of something to come. Little bits and pieces along the way are what bring us to where we’re meant to be and do.

    We all know we’re supposed to be content with things as they are, but it’s not always so easy. Thanks for sharing your story and the stories of the stars. Somehow if you haven’t got it all figured out and if Oprah keeps striving for more, I guess things will be okay for me, too.

  37. Umm. I suffer this horribly.

    I have a tip to add. I actually heard Daniel Amen speak and he said if you want to be happy, make a list every day of things youre grateful for.

    I think the same would work here. Every day, list your successes for that day.

    Today, my biggest success was having the drive to keep on trucking after two buy days of my first product launch.

  38. Pam, you smashed it!

    I know. It actually takes training to be constantly reminded that you’re making great progress, and to look around and appreciate it daily.

    I was just thinking about this, as I was walking up the steps of my apartment, realizing that I just wrote a guest post for Carol Roth’s blog, am on my way to see a client tomorrow to help him with social media, and recently started barefoot running.

    Jesus, I need to appreciate that! A definite hallmark of an effective blogger is writing posts that make people reflect, and really start to think about things. No wonder your blog turned into a book.

  39. Holli says:

    What a perfectly timed post. Seriously, just today I got caught in the spiral and stopped at about 4pm, and decided to restart my day with a little joy (forced smile and all).
    Thank you for the added push and confirmation that even people I admire, like you, can feel the same way.

  40. Ah Pam…how I love this post:) It’s actually a topic that I have been mulling over (got a couple of book ideas myself);)the whole definition of success thing.

    I have often found myself in the same situation…”well so-and-so is baking a homemade apple pie, writing the new version of War and Peace, has been contacted by the OWN Network…and has perfect hair dammit!”

    But then I ask myself (a fan of the lovely Gretchen myself)…”Am I happy right now?” and the answer is yes! While I have discomfort (not fast enough, etc.) over some of the things I want to accomplish…overall I’m happy, satisfied, and loving the path that I’m on right now.

    And most importantly it’s based on my success definition and how I’m running my race.

    Thanks for a great post!


  41. This is perfect. You are perfect. The timing of this is perfect. I’d have to agree that Rachael is perfect. And, apparently, despite my endless internal lamentations about being a too-easily-distracted loser, I’m not doing so bad myself! 🙂

    Actually…after listing out (and erasing) my long list of accomplishments over the last 30 days, I’m feeling pretty darn good about it all. Thank you so much Pam! XOXO

  42. Ellie Di says:

    Ah, perspective. Such a tricky lady. When I fall into The Hole on this score, holding up a mirror on a stick so I can see everyone else is always the best way for me to get the courage to climb out. Looking at people across the success spectrum helps me to both define my place and my goals. There’s always going to be someone better than me (probably), but there may be someone out there thinking the same thing about me…

  43. Your success has always inspired me to be more and do more. Thank you for being such a beautiful person.

  44. Kylie says:

    I was just thinking about this today. Well, not this, but something similar. The way our own mistakes always seem so huge, while those of others are practically invisible to us. In the same way, our successes seem tiny compared to those of others.

    I think it’s also important to think about what resources we each have to do what we do. Each of our situations varies immensely from the next, in terms of income, and family situation, and language ability, and education. We don’t always know someone else’s backstory. I’d like to think that what brings us to where we are is, like our success, totally and completely perfect — for us.

    • fas says:

      I think its usually the other way round. Others mistake is huge, but you see yours as not so big.