Fish Can’t Climb Trees: A Lesson on Comparison


You may have heard the saying: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” While this quote is often misattributed to Albert Einstein, its origin doesn’t matter as much as how it applies to understanding the detrimental impacts of comparing ourselves to others.

Fish are Going to Swim

Just as swimming comes naturally to fish, making comparisons is an innate part of being human. Social comparison theory proposes that our impulse to measure ourselves against those around us comes from our evolutionary need to assess threats for our own protection. So, while our need to compare is rational in theory, how we put it into practice is where issues can arise—especially in the age of social media.

The Water Isn’t Always Bluer…

When you feel like you’re falling short because of all the exciting and impressive things that people in your life are experiencing, take a moment to reflect beyond the surface. We’re all more likely to share openly about the aspects of our lives that bring us joy, or accomplishments that we’re proud of. There’s a reason ‘Instagram versus reality’ became a trend—we usually only see the highlights, often with embellishments added or imperfections removed. Viewing these flawless snippets as if they’re the entire picture creates an unrealistic standard.

Not to mention that we tend to be kinder to others than we are to ourselves. While you may feel insecure, consider that someone has most likely compared themself to you at one time or another and felt they were lacking in some way. Everyone has their own struggles, many of which we will never see.

A New Stream of Thought

It’s important to not only avoid comparing ourselves to the unattainable, idealized versions of others—the tree climbers if you will—but to avoid using others as a benchmark at all. Think of it this way: goldfish and manta rays are both fish, yet we don’t expect them to look alike, behave similarly or even be found in the same places. That is, your life will never be just like anyone else’s, so you shouldn’t spend your time and energy trying to make it so.

If you’re wondering how to avoid getting reeled in by the urge to compare, here are a few tips:

  • Have some compassion. One way to combat negativity toward yourself is by practicing self-compassion. This includes treating yourself with kindness, recognizing that you’re human (which comes with lots of messiness) and being mindful of how you view your struggles or shortcomings so that they don’t overwhelm you.
  • Focus on you. Instead of looking toward other people to gauge your worth, measure only against yourself. Reflect on your successes, how you’ve grown over time and what you still hope to achieve. Strive for self-improvement that stems from what you truly want, not how anyone else makes you feel.
  • Be curious. You can use others for inspiration by reframing your mindset and approaching differences with curiosity rather than judgement. Ask yourself how you can benefit from the wisdom and experience of those around you and apply the knowledge you gain to your own unique circumstances.

Next time you have the urge to compare, don’t take the bait! Remember where this feeling comes from, use the strategies outlined above to help you redirect and know that help is available if you need a little extra support.

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