On being … compared and contrasted

By Ingrid Sapona

Remember those assignments in junior high school English class where you had to write an essay “comparing and contrasting” two characters in a story? I always thought that was kind of a lame assignment – really just a way of getting us to talk about a book. But looking back, I’d have to say I’ve made more use of the compare and contrast exercises in my life than pretty much anything else we did in junior high. (Maybe others make day-to-day use of things like calculating the area of a trapezoid or lighting a Bunsen burner, who knows.)

Of course, the compare and contrast I find myself doing doesn’t involve fictional characters – it involves comparing myself to others. I’m not talking about a Keeping Up with the Joneses type of comparison in terms of wealth and power. I gave that up long ago – even before America elected a president that’s younger than me! I’m talking more about behaviours or skills that other people I meet have that seem to contribute to their success or happiness.

Usually my compare and contrast exercise starts off with me observing the other person’s behavior in a series of situations, and then realizing that I admire their way of being, or approach to things. My initial appreciation for them is usually pretty general, but if I think they’ve got a “winning” way, then I take a closer look and try to figure out some of the specific things they do. (Yes, I’m intentionally avoiding describing them as a “success” because that might be misinterpreted as being wealthy, famous, or powerful. Anyway, now that you know what I mean, from here on, if I use successful, please remember that I mean something other than money, power, or fame.)

Sometimes the things that seem to contribute to their success are innate qualities – like an ability to relate to people, or a particular artistic talent. But many times their successful behavior relates to things I’m capable of doing, but that I don’t do, or don’t do enough of. It’s probably easiest to explain through an example.

Angela (not her real name) is a career consultant I’ve gotten to know the past few years. Like me, she’s in business for herself. Angela has a lot going for her. One of the things I admire most about her is the extent to which she seems up on concepts and trends that are hot in management circles. She often refers to authors and marketing or human resources gurus who have coined certain phrases that are popular in business circles. She has a knack for describing activities and actions in a way that seems straight off the pages of the Harvard Business Review. By doing this, she seems cutting edge and current, which is valuable in today’s business world. Though I pay attention to management terminology and lingo, I don’t tend to use it (and when I do, I usually feel like a phony).

Often, the end result of my compare and contrast exercise is that I find myself lacking. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because it often motivates me to try to improve in whatever way I feel I’m lacking. Of course, sometimes it’s just another thing that I use to beat myself up about…

But then there are times when the exercise helps me see – and take stock in – my own strengths. Indeed, it happened just the other day in an interaction I had with Angela. She had e-mailed a marketing brochure about a service she was offering and based on the title, I determined it wasn’t something I was interested in so I deleted it. A few days later she wrote to a number of us and specifically asked for input on the brochure. It seems that after sending it out she didn’t get any response and so she realized that somehow she missed the mark.

The grace she exhibited in her follow-up e-mail asking for feedback was yet another example of why I think so much of Angela and such a sincere request deserved a thoughtful response. As soon as I re-read the title of the brochure, I remembered why I had so quickly deleted it. The title indicated the service related to developing a personal brand, and brand is a concept I can’t relate to, so I didn’t even read on. This time, however, I read more and I soon realized that the title was misleading and some of the key information was buried far down in the text. But, for me, the main problem was her injection of business buzz words in what I think most readers would see as a non-business context.

Putting together my comments to Angela about the brochure provided me with a big Ah-Ha. I realized that the previous comparison I made of my fluency with business lingo to Angela’s fluency was only half the standard compare and contrast analysis. Though I do fall short in that comparison, by contrast, my professional focus has always been on using plain language, which goes a long way toward explaining why it’s such a struggle for me to use business jargon.

So maybe those junior high school English teachers were on to something. There’s lots to be learned from those compare and contrast exercises – just be sure you remember to do both parts.

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona


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