Apples at Farmer's Market by Mr. T in DCMany freelancers know the old expression about comparing apples to oranges. Early on, we quickly understand how it’s an exercise in futility. We see no point in comparing our SEO management company of one to a financial analyst at Ernst & Young. We know that pursuing our dream of owning a recording studio for local musicians bares no resemblance to the life of a quality assurance manager at a pharmaceutical company.

But how many of us make a habit of comparing apples to apples? How often do we feel compelled to look across the coffee shop and wonder if the freelancer frantically typing away at his laptop is better at his chosen project than we are at our own? Sometimes, we don’t bother to notice if we’re even in the same field. We may run into photographers, coders, producers, poets and bloggers on a weekly basis, and our knee-jerk reaction is to fear: Is he better than me?

The nature of the freelance game carries with it a level of uncertainty, and many freelancers second guess their talent and business acumen in the beginning. We can’t help but want to improve, but at the same time, we have no desire to feel inferior. So we compare. And not just to our competition. Hoping to feel justified in our career choice, we compare ourselves to our colleagues and friends.

We see freelancer writers who have articles published in over 20 magazines, and they’re ten years our junior. We can’t help but notice bloggers making money hand over fist and they’ve only been blogging for less than a year. We look at ourselves and think about what we’re doing wrong. Is that person more talented? Does she have a better head for business? Did he have an “in” with Pixar or Apple or The Washington Post?

Here’s why comparing apples to apples is also an exercise in futility:
You’re always going to be more AND less successful than someone else.

If you’re a copywriter with three small businesses on your ledger, there was a time when you had none. You may have only six FOB articles in two magazines plus a steady proofreading gig with a hyperlocal newspaper, but there was a time when you had no articles and worked at a horrible telemarketing company that still gives you nightmares. For every photographer earning $1800 per project today, there was a time when he only earned $150 for the same amount of work.

Freelancers, by and large, are an incredibly supportive lot, but we fall victim to a society that encourages competition as the only gauge for success. So we forget about how far we’ve come and focus all of our attention on the goals we wish to accomplish.

There are plenty of days when I feel down because my portfolio doesn’t have as many published magazine articles as Linda Formichelli‘s or my marketing campaigns aren’t as clever as Shenee Howard‘s or my blog doesn’t get nearly as many comments as Lisa Kilian‘s. But then I remember that a year ago, I didn’t even have a website. In the last year, I’ve written copy for BIC Graphic catalogs, interviewed my first major label recording artist, sent out my first query in less than 30 minutes, and wrote my first guest blog post.

I’m not where I want to be, but I’m not where I used to be. And like many others, I tend to forget that until I meet someone with a freelance CV less seasoned than my own. I think we need to remember that not only were we all newbies once, but we may also be the subject of someone else’s envy.

Defining Targets Differently by HikingArtist.comThe best thing we can do is to cut ourselves some slack and stop comparing apples to apples. All businesses worth their talent and energy take time to grow. If you’re freelancer also holding down a 9-to-5, juggling stay-at-home-parent duties or subsisting off of Top Ramen and Spam, you’re already a success in my book.

Our collective goal is to succeed in a field that makes us proud to get up in the morning and go to work. No one at any level should feel less than. Whether you are your only boss or you’re happily freelancing on the side while working for a wonderful business that doesn’t have your name on the letterhead, remember that every day is an opportunity to grow. And your growth deserves to measured by your own standards, not someone else’s.

Do you compare your freelance success to your colleagues’ and friends’?
Have you found a way to break this habit?