Is it common to have feelings of inadequacy when comparing myself to my peers?

A student asked:

Is it common to have feelings of inadequacy when comparing myself to my peers? I always feel that in terms of academia, I’m not as strong as my friends. I can never keep my concentration as good as them and I always get distracted. They can study for hours on end and I barely make it thru one lecture.

Here is a fact that is true now as it was true during my time as a student: many students are just putting up a front before other people as if they are coping well or staying on top of everything, because to admit struggle seems embarrassing, especially in a competitive environment.

From the mid-course survey that I did in AY2020/2021 Semester 1, I can tell you that 70-80% of the cohort admitted that they are struggling to cope with the semester and online learning.

If it helps, I am happy to admit that I struggle a lot with online teaching and this 100% online semester. It’s exhausting to teach online tutorials, and even more exhausting and frustrating to have to sit through many online meetings. I actually need like an hour to “decompress” after each Zoom session. So I’m extra unproductive this semester.

Do I feel inadequate, or even embarrassed about this? No. I just know that’s how I am when I use Zoom. We all have our strengths and our weaknesses. My weakness is that I can’t handle Zoom tutorials well. It’s not easy. No need to feel bad about it. It just is.

As for feelings of inadequacy, I used to get it a lot as an undergraduate student. I used to compare myself with people scoring A+s and wondered why I could never be like them, and then I tortured myself constantly by thinking that I’m not good enough.

But if you noticed, saying that you’re “good enough” requires a context. Good enough… for what? If you don’t know yet what you want to be good in, you will never be good enough for anything because there is no context for “good enough” to make sense. So of course, without that clearly defined context, it’s logically impossible to be “good enough” for anything. As it is, you’re probably already good at some things, but the abstract nature of “good enough” lacks a frame of reference, so we will always fall short of “good enough.”

So of course, when we’re young and clueless, we’ll just find anything and everything that we can compare. And we often torture ourselves by finding things that we’re not good at and then comparing ourselves with people who are good at those things. We don’t give ourselves enough recognition that we are good or in fact better than some/most people in other things.

How did I get over my feelings of inadequacy? By recognising my own strengths and weaknesses. I’ve made my peace when I came to the conclusion that I am not as talented to be an excellent research. I will always be a mediocre researcher , and that’s ok. I’m perfectly happy with that because I don’t enjoy research neither do I want to spend the rest of my life doing that. Other people can and will do better at me in research and I’m happy for them. I can live with this.

What do I enjoy doing and what are my strengths? Writing and teaching. I love doing these two things and so I’m very happy that I can do them well. Are there people better than me? Yes. Do I feel inadequate? No, because I recognise I am still a work-in-progress. And I can use the time to gain more experiences and learn along the way.

And I think we forget that there’s a time factor when it comes to being good at something. Some people are great at what they do because they are willing to pour hours and hours and hours of work into it. Should you feel inadequate comparing yourselves to these people? No. They made the decision to dedicate so much time and energy to it. And if you want to be as great as them, then you have to be willing to work hard and struggle for it.

With teaching, I’m willing to do that. And I’m actually very excited that there are people better than me whom I can learn from. With research, not so much. Hence I am quite happy even though I’m not as good as others when it comes to research. It’s just not my cup of tea, it’s just not something I wish to torture myself over.

I sometimes find it annoying that people think they need to be the best in everything, or the most excellent person about a particular thing. Why the need for that? The harsh fact of life is that there will always be people better than us in every aspect of our existence. And just because they are better than us doesn’t mean that we will lose. This isn’t some sick battle royale game where we have to keep eliminating others in order to stay alive. The world isn’t like that.

Focusing on our inadequacy is really just a distraction from the more important things like learning how to be better. The fact that there are people better than us means that there are opportunities for us to learn to improve ourselves. Why are they better than us, how can we up our game to be better than them? These are the more important questions.