Some time around 2004, I began looking at Wikipedia a lot.
Maybe it was because I’d just graduated college or maybe it was just that Wikipedia was then ascendant, but I think it was actually a combination of things — I wanted to see where I was in life, and compare myself to others.
I remember doing it with the most ridiculous people. Mark Twain. Benjamin Franklin. Steve Jobs. Dr. Dre. Jimmy Iovine. Rza. Martin Luther King. Howard Stern. Rod Serling. Warren Buffet. Jimmy Buffet. Jimmie Walker. Paul Walker. Paul Allen. Woody Allen. Woody Harrelson. Wesley Snipes. Rosie Perez. Spike Lee. Chuck D. Rick Rubin. Paul Reubens. Ruben Studdard. Simon Cowell. Simon Pegg. Simon Baker. Chet Baker. Anita Baker. Josephine Baker.
You understand what I’m getting at here — I’m sure. I would look at someone’s life and then fall into an internet k-hole of comparing myself to them, trying to parse why this thing or that thing happened for them. Mostly, I’d try to figure out why it wasn’t also happening for me. Like, what is the thing that allows them to be all that I am not?
Little did it matter that the person had nothing to do with who I was or what I was doing. Pee-Wee Herman? I mean, come on. The point is, I was just clicking on links and getting get caught in this cycle of looking at any and everyone who had ever done anything important. I was trying to figure them out. My hope was that by figuring them out, I could figure myself out.
I don’t know if this ever became particularly paralyzing, because I still managed to do some things (well, I’m probably being modest). But I also wonder — how many years of my life, in total, have I spent studying people who have done that which I’ve desired to do?
Certainly, I don’t recall doing this as much before 2004; really, before I got high-speed internet access, and before all this information became so readily available. By that I mean Wikipedia, but I also mean blogging and social media — before we became so tapped into the online world. Before we could escape our own lives, by spending it looking at others.
I do remember posting on message boards; this, dating back as far as the year 2000 (when I got online). But even then, I think, because so much of my interaction was dial-up — maybe my family was even paying by the minute? — I tended to not waste as much time online. Didn’t really spend it frivolously.
Certainly I used chat rooms, things like that, and yet it always seemed we were less connected then than we are now. That then, people were always presenting an online self, a self that wasn’t exactly them, for safety reasons. And so because of that, you took most of what you saw from other people online with a grain of salt. If you wanted to escape, you still did it through a television set.
Now, you could reasonably look at someone’s blog, Instagram account or Facebook page and get lost in it for a few hours, few days, few years. You can spend so much time keeping up with what other people are doing — because they’re documenting it online — that you lose sight of what it is that you’re doing.
And there is something that develops as a result. Maybe it’s envy. Maybe it’s appreciation. Maybe it’s kinship. Whatever it is, there is some type of emotional reaction, connection even. I notice it myself, when I get a LinkedIn alert telling me to congratulate someone, someone I probably barely know, on a new job, and my first reaction is — fuck that person and that fucking job.
I have no real reason for feeling this way, because my life isn’t perfect, but it certainly isn’t bad. I think it’s just a thing where you are being presented with information you didn’t really ask for, being told something you didn’t want to know, and even though the person on the other side isn’t gloating, you’re also just like: hey, cool, go away now.
And so I think there was something a lot different about how things were before, where you might have gone and sought out that information. Like, gee, let me see what Thomas Edison was doing at age 26.
And now it’s like, you’re just sitting there doing your thing and all of a sudden some person comes along like, hey, just sold my company for 20 billion dollars, married Miss Universe and I have two kids who look like baby J. Crew models. Wassup!
I think what ends up happening is, it fucks with you a bit. Kind of makes you pause, compare yourself to other people. Not legends, not icons, not the founding fathers and mothers — but other people in your own life. And in a way, it can eat at you, slowly. Maybe it even becomes a festering kind of anger, seeing other people get ahead.
And the more I think about it, the more I realize, it’s best to go through life like a horse — with blinders on. To not pay attention to other people and their success, what they’re doing and how they’re doing it; but rather to just focus on what is in front of you, what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.
What I’ve come to understand is that a lot of great people, the ones I probably wasted all that time looking up all those years ago, didn’t really know too much about who had come before them or what would come after. They were people in motion, not worried too much about what others were doing.
I’m certain that they peaked up from their desks on occasion, because they didn’t want to go through life completely ignorant, but they likely did not let the success of others paralyze them. Maybe it was because they had less access to this information, but even if they did, I’m sure they were not being bombarded with it.
Instead, they kept focused — eyes directly in front of them. It’s much more difficult to do now, but still, something worth thinking about. Because if you are constantly looking at others, you also find yourself innately looking to pull up next to them, to get even.
In reality, to finish at number one, you have to actually get out in front and cross the finish line.
If you’d like to share this, click the little heart-shaped icon below. Thanks!