04(03): Comparison is the thief of joy; dealing with regret and feelings of inadequacy

How the quote ‘Comparison is the thief of joy’ originated

“Comparison is the thief of joy”. This well-known quote is attributed to the 26th US President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919). Attached below is an image of him (taken from Wikipedia [1]).

Variations of this advice are common as well. In the US, a particularly well-regarded place to hike is the Appalachian trail – where the Appalachian Mountains are. Hikers on that trail apparently have the motto, “Hike your own hike”.

Even within secondary school, I remember how the teacher for my Physical Education classes would tell us that whenever we enter the gym, we should “leave our ego at the door”. His main objective in putting such advice forth is that safety issues are more likely to crop up if people leave their egos unchecked in the gym. For example, a man may injure himself at one of the stations within the gym in an attempt to impress other people when trying to do something beyond what his current physical capabilities can bear.

After all, in the gym, comparisons are certainly more objective. Dumbbells all have a specific weight associated with them. With all the numerical figures or size of objects being prominently displayed (e.g. heavier dumbbells are larger in size) for many of the stations within the gym, making comparisons with that other people is simply too easy. While easier said that done, individual users of the gym should indeed “leave their egos at the door” and focus on how they can become better than the person they were yesterday, and not compare with other people unproductively.

With that said, comparing oneself with others is not always a bad thing. It is appropriate in at least the following circumstances: I once came across a video online (the last time I checked it on YouTube, it was entitled “A Little Girls [sic] Lesson In Fairness”). It was a segment from a movie where a father gives advice to his daughter.

The most memorable line of that short segment of the movie was when the father says to his daughter that the only time we should look into our neighbour’s bowl is to determine if they have enough, not to see if we have as as much or less than them. In the direct form, here is the quote, at least from a cursory Google search:

“The only time you look in your neighbor’s bowl is to make sure that they have enough. You don’t look in your neighbor’s bowl to see if you have as much as them.” – Louis C. K.

Such a fantastic quote.

How I was recently reminded of it by my Clinical Group EnRICH mentor

I’m not sure if this is a new initiative but on my first clinical rotation as a third-year medical student at YLL, my clinical group was assigned an EnRiCH mentor. According to the NUS website [2], “EnRICH is a longitudinal mentorship program which aims to complement the students’ five-year medical curriculum by supporting the students’ professional development through:

  • Fostering personal and professional relationships with peers and mentors
  • Nurturing the NUS values of Respect, Integrity, Compassion, and Humility (Thus forming the RICH)
  • Developing self-mastery and resilience

My EnRICH mentor is a paediatric emergencies consultant at NUH. When asked by one of our CG mates if she had any advice for us, the quote “Comparison is the thief of joy” was what she told us. How apt.

This is medical school after all. Medical school in Singapore. Medical students here are generally ambitious, diligent, possess type A personalities, and engage in many CV-enhancing/portfolio-enhancing side projects (e.g. volunteering, a side business, research) in addition to their main role of training to become safe and competent junior doctors.

Listening to the various student presentations at Saturday’s WHBS Research Day event

Despite only having been in YLL for about seven months, I have found myself making comparisons with many of my peers: not to see if they “have enough in their bowl”, but comparing to see if “I have as much as them” on numerous occasions.

While I rationally am aware that such a mindset and approach is unproductive, I still succumb to it anyway. I wonder if it’s because the tendency to compare oneself with others is an inherent characteristic in human beings that is virtually impossible to eradicate.

Anyway, I would like to share a specific example of how I had to deal with these comparisons that I made in my mind.

On Saturday morning (29 Jan 2022), we had the Research Day by the Wong Hock Boon Society (WHBS), where various medical students had the opportunity to present their research to panellists of judges which consisted of established medical doctors and/or scientists. The event took place from 0830-1330 over Zoom.

There were multiple breakout rooms, and each breakout room had multiple groups presenting their projects. For each project presentation, a panel of judges in the breakout room would evaluate the project on a points system.

Dealing with feelings of inadequacy and combatting negative thoughts

One thing that should be understood by the general public (or anyone that wishes to know more about how medical school works) is that engaging in research is generally not mandatory in most medical schools (particularly undergraduate medical schools). My perspective is that, at least in the context of Singapore, the goal of medical school is to produce functioning junior doctors at the end of the half-a-decade factory production line in order to ensure that our healthcare system is kept functioning.

Even at Flinders (a graduate-level medical school), where students had to complete a mandatory ‘Advanced Studies’ component as part of the medical curriculum, students still had the choice between a research project and coursework. I had chosen the former (specifically: I had embarked on ophthalmology-related research given my interest in ophthalmology); however, I could also have chosen the latter option.

In the context of medical school, engaging in research is something students can do to enhance their portfolio. You can imagine how having co-authored several peer-reviewed articles would make one stand out more as an impressive applicant to various residency programme selection committees. After all, when virtually all applicants possess a basic medical qualification (e.g. MBBS), you need other elements to sieve through applicants. Truly, with respect to research, the sky is the limit. I know about someone who is currently an HO (house officer) and has absolutely off-the-charts publication metrics. His h-index on Google Scholar as of the time of writing is 23 despite being only two years older than me. He’s only 26!

Anyway, as for the WHBS Research Day event, I didn’t participate in the event for the full duration but I did still managed to attend a significant proportion of it. I did see many familiar names over there. As I heard the various students present their research to the judges, I couldn’t help but feel a combination of awe and regret.

I wondered, “These presentations are amazing. I’m so happy for all these medical students – that despite the normal workload of medical school, they worked on meaningful research, and got to present their findings to these esteemed doctors and researchers.”

I was impressed by many of the presentations I heard. It was evident that the students who worked on their project had put in significant effort to their project. On top of the actual research work, they still needed to spend time to prepare appropriate PowerPoint slides for the group presentation on Research Day.

As I heard all these presentations, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that I had not achieved anything like any of those students. It didn’t feel totally great as a participant, particularly as I watched medical students in my cohort or even in relatively junior cohorts (e.g. Phase II) present research findings that they were proud of. I couldn’t help but wonder, “What am I doing wrong? Why am I lacking? All these brilliant people are all ahead of me in this aspect.”

I didn’t have a significant publication to my name.

Thoughts of “if I had made many small but consistently good decisions over the years, things would have been different for me today” coursed through my veins. It’s not just such a thought of making generic good decisions.

I can recall specific branch points in my earlier years, and I wonder how my life would have been different if I had chosen different paths. This probably deserves its own blog post but in essence, with my ‘O’ level score (a perfect net L1R5 of 2) as a Singaporean citizen, I was guaranteed admission into any JC via the JAE. One question that I ask (and asked) myself and people have always asked me was, “Why Hwa Chong? Why not Raffles?”

Even within Hwa Chong, I did not make full use of the opportunities available which would have enabled me to get the most out of the Hwa Chong experience:

  1. I wasn’t as hardworking as I could be.
  2. I didn’t fully leverage on my abilities to participate in certain special programmes within the school.
  3. I didn’t leverage on my abilities to join a CCA in which I knew I could confidently excel in at a starting baseline (thus resulting in a missed opportunity to truly shine in terms of CCA performance and one’s perceived potential for taking on a leadership role within the CCA).
  4. I didn’t make use of the numerous advertised/promoted internship and attachment opportunities on the school portal. I recall this instance where even when I had actually, on the rare occasion, applied to go on an OCIP trip to Nepal, I was successful in my application (there were many students competing for limited spots)! However, I had not followed up regularly to check the outcome of my application status. By the time I found out that I had actually been accepted initially for the Nepal OCIP, it was too late. My spot had gone to someone else.
  5. I didn’t aggressively apply for all the miscellaneous awards and scholarships that I could have.
  6. I didn’t network as effectively as I could have.
  7. I could have chosen Geography instead of Economics (though my H2 Economics subject was ultimately computed as a H1-level subject for the UAP calculation, I nevertheless only attained a ”C” grade for it, which is unfortunate) for my A-level contrasting subject. The reason I chose Economics was that it was the most popular contrasting subject choice in the student cohort, and I just went with the flow. It’s quite unfortunate because at the O-levels, I did enjoy Geography a lot and excelled in it. Who knows what my A-level result would have been if I had chosen Geography instead of Economics.
  8. Even for one of Hwa Chong’s special science research programmes which I was a part of, I could have been more strategic to choose a project with a high likelihood of leading to a tangible outcome: a journal publication, or being able to present some significant finding. Instead, I had chosen a project where getting some meaningful tangible result was much more challenging.

It hurts just thinking about what could have been if I had been more serious, mature, and competitive at that age.

Even beyond Raffles and Hwa Chong, I also wonder how things could have turned out if I had gone to ACS(I) instead. I recently had lunch with a friend who did the IB, and she explained to me in detail how the IB works. It did sound quite meaningful and I wonder if I would have been able to achieve a better equivalent score in the IB than I did at the A-levels. We could even go one step further. If I had truly excelled at the A-levels, and had gotten into local medical school ASAP, I would be working as an HO now.

In an alternate universe, I could have been one of these students delivering a presentation on the WHBS Research Day on Saturday.

As for dealing with the issue of regrets, I simply don’t think it’s productive to dwell on one’s regrets. Though easier said than done, I know that I should let bygones be bygones. The past cannot be changed. We have knowledge of the past, and we are living in the present. We should use that past experience to our advantage.

Conclusion

As I have quoted previously in my other writings, there is a well-known Chinese proverb that goes, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago; the next best time is now”.

I recall watching an inspiring video on YouTube once, where the speaker talks about how one’s absolute position is not necessarily the most important. Rather, it’s one’s trajectory that is more important!

Armed with the lessons I have learnt, I know that I can start making good decisions from today so as to maximise the likelihood of attaining meaningful long-term success in various domains: academic performance, future work performance, relationships, and health.

If you meet me about a year from now, ask me how my life has changed since I made this blog post today. I hope to give a positive report.

Wish me all the best.

NL
31 January 2022

References

[1] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:President_Roosevelt_-_Pach_Bros_(cropped).jpg#/media/File:President_Roosevelt_-_Pach_Bros_(cropped).jpg
[2] https://cenmedscholar.nus.edu.sg/course-details.aspx?id=35

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