The Parable of the Two Bowls

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

As writers, we live and ply our craft in an interesting juxtaposition: we’re told not to compare ourselves to others, while constantly being asked to write more and faster because XYZ famous author does it and the industry demands it.

Social media makes comparing your skills/speed with other writers extremely easy and tempting. If you hang out with other writers (as I do) you’re constantly seeing who has written X number of words, finished which book, or is being praised for his/her prolific-ness. And on top of that, you’re first to hear nasty rumors like the recent one that publishers expect four books a year now from certain genres.

Obviously, dwelling on this is not healthy – for your mental state or your creativity. But ignoring everyone else is easier said than done.

I never understood how NOT to compare myself to others until I ran across this Louis CK quote on Pinterest the other day: “The only time you should 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.” 

I have no idea why that particular metaphor worked when so many others haven’t. Maybe it triggers some long-forgotten religious theme in my upbringing or just touches on the basic human need for sustenance. But I’ve found myself going back to it time and time again as I read through the triumphs and successes of others. And it’s helping me to be happy for them, as I should be. It still doesn’t erase that little ping of envy when someone achieves something I’ve always wanted, but it helps.

And when I bother to take time actually look into my own bowl, rather than simply lamenting that it’s never full enough no matter what I do (we all feel that way sometimes, right?), I realize my bowl is doing pretty darn well. It may be like Merlin’s bag and keep expanding even as I fill it, but I should celebrate what I already have: I have two and half books under my belt, work with a fantastic agent, write for two blogs and have recently been able to give back to my local writing community by sharing my experiences. Not too shabby for a 34 year old.

There may be goals I have yet to achieve, but that’s actually a good thing. It keeps me going, keeps me motivated. I don’t know about you, but if I didn’t have those milestones peeking out of the mist of the future, I’d be tempted on some days to give up, or at least roll over and go back to bed when I should be writing. The shiny baubles in other people’s bowls that attract our attention whether we want them to or not should serve to make us more determined to be better, not weigh us down in jealousy.

And when I do spy the empty bowl of someone else who is wanting for something, it’s my duty to do what I can to help. That may be offering to beta read, start a writing sprint, or simply offer encouragement or listen. When that person’s bowl is filled, it’s time to get my eyes back on my own bowl and my fingers on the keyboard.

Wow, I feel like I’ve just preached a homily. Sister Nicole will shut up now. But I’d like to hear from you. What are your experiences like in comparing yourself with others? What tricks have you found? Does the Louis CK quote resonate with you? What advice do you have for others struggling with this?

10 thoughts on “The Parable of the Two Bowls

  1. Shauna Granger says:

    Fantastic quote! I know exactly how you feel. Being self-published, that four titles as year bit really applies to me. So many SP authors are churning out at least four titles a year and it’s like you’re over here, trying to tread water, gasping for breath and saying, “But I take my time to go over draft after draft, let my betas rip it apart and have an editor polish it! These things take time!” I thought I was doing really well publishing every 6 months, but that was only because I had drafts completed from before I first published. It is so hard to keep up with expectations that you just have to stop and say, “That isn’t how I’m going to do things. Good for them, but not for me.” And just forge ahead.

    Great post!

  2. livrancourt says:

    That’s a brilliant quote, and a timely reminder. The only way I could put out four books a year is if I was okay with putting out crap. I’m not, and, like Shauna says, the process of writing, getting feedback, and editing takes time. Thanks, Sister Nicole. You can preach to me any time 😉

  3. Kristin McFarland says:

    Great post, Nicole! Twitter, especially, makes it so easy to compare yourself to other writers, and that’s never productive. Yay for you for writing this. 🙂

  4. My Dear Nicole, you know my english is not as good as it should be, but i try to answer you. Yes i want more in my own bowl, and i´m sometimes jaelous that someone has published a book and nobody like mine. But i´m happy for them when they reach their goals. So my heart beats half for them and is happy and half of it makes a strange noise of envy. I work really hard and write poems, parts of childbooks, a criminal story (not finished yet), australia novel No.1 is ready (but nobody take it and publish it till now) australia novel No.2 will be bigger and i´m still writing on it. I should really look in my empty bowl first and fill it up. Louis CK quote is the right advice for me, so i will start writing right now. Yours Bettina

    1. Hi Bettina! I understand you perfectly! I like your phrase that your heart “makes the strange noise of envy.” That’s very powerful. It’s true that envy is a strange sound because it’s not the one our hearts should be making. They should be making sounds of happiness and love.

      I’m so excited to hear about your writing. Believe me, i know getting published can be hard. But it will happen! Until then, you are doing the right thing by persisting in writing. Best of luck to you, my dear friend!

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