It is both true and a truism that “comparison is the thief of joy.” For those who aspire to some kind of earthly achievement, few things are harder than facing the amount of things some other people get done in a lifetime. People are always posting on social media about what some sculptor did by 25, but there are endless examples. What about Isaac Newton and his annus mirabilis? What didn’t Ben Franklin do? How many pages did Thomas Aquinas read and write in his life?
Some people are just remarkable. I recently went to an artist’s talk to hear Mickalene Thomas, and she is someone who has done some things. She works in multiple mediums, she’s had exhibitions and residencies, she’s won awards, and she helps mentor young artists. Think about anybody who has reached an EGOT, like Mel Brooks. One man, Maurice Hilleman, was involved in the development of 40 vaccines. His research into preventing measles, mumps, hepatitis, etc., changed childhood forever. Again, think about Isaac Newton. Some people seem capable of doing more than others.
Some people are remarkable, but we can find some comfort in remembering their circumstances. Teddy Roosevelt was remarkable and many young men grew up with as much privilege as he had and did not even half of what he did. But, when we’re sadly comparing our reading habits to his, it’s worth remembering that he really didn’t do dishes or cook meals or clean his living space very much. He typically had people who did those things for him. Even with servants, we might achieve less than TR, but probably most of us would be able to read more if absolved of household chores.
Another figure who was very intelligent, talented, and hardworking, but also insulated from everyday life was Robert Moses. In Robert Caro’s masterful The Power Broker, we learn that his wife purchased all his clothes and put pocket money in his pants for him in the morning. She also arranged for barbers to visit him at his office. For decades of his life, he did not drive anywhere, he was always driven. He had incredible energy and attention to detail, but he was also assisted by endless secretaries and staff and was almost never inconvenienced by the demands of normal life. Not everyone could do what he did, even with all that support, but it would be hard to imagine anyone doing it without that support.
Robert Moses is also a good example of the risk of overvaluing high productivity. He remade New York City. He elevated the place of the automobile. As Caro points out, Moses achieved the kind of feats impossible in most non-authoritarian systems. He was perhaps the only figure comparable to Haussmann in a modern democracy. But how did he do it? He did it by accumulating and wielding power ruthlessly, without regard for others or other perspectives. His mistakes were just as lasting as his marks of genius. He destroyed neighborhoods and he destroyed reputations—anything and anyone that was in his way. Moses lived to do things and he did do great things, but he did many terrible things, too. The more power he gained the more he lost his sense of proportion. And while he was busy remaking the world, he lost touch with it.
Our culture has a tendency to venerate productivity and accomplishment. We celebrate people who get things done. We read books about productivity. We pay people to be productivity experts. We exported Taylorism to the world. On weekends, we go to Home Depot, for “more saving, more doing.” We love #hustleculture. But we can get so caught up in celebrating productivity that we can forget about the products and byproducts.
It would be hard to think of an American who achieved more than Ben Franklin. He had very little formal education but went on to found libraries and a university. He helped bring together the American colonies as a country and he made countless scientific investigations. He worked at the highest levels as a diplomat and ambassador and he communicated with everyday people in his Poor Richard’s Almanack. Ben Franklin was extremely enterprising and efficient and nothing if not productive. It is hard to imagine he had time for sleeping with all that he did. But Franklin is remembered in a way that Robert Moses isn’t, because his labors were not just about his personal vision for the world. Robert Moses was a public servant, but Ben Franklin was, while imperfect, truly public-minded. Franklin was selfish, like all human beings, but he was demonstrably capable of thinking about people other than himself. When he invented the Franklin stove, he chose not to patent it so that others could benefit from it.
Comparison will certainly steal your joy if you compare yourself to Ben Franklin. He was genuinely better at getting things done than most of us ever will be. But when we compare ourselves with many others, we can take some comfort in accounting for circumstances. They won’t explain away excellence, but they may highlight some differences in available time that will help us sleep at night. And when it comes to celebrating productivity, we can be reminded that achievement and excellence are not synonyms. Better to do a little and feel confident that it is good than to do a lot and feel uncertain about how we have made our mark. A Ben Franklin is a rare bird indeed.