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Why don't I have 1,000 subscribers?
On feeling like a loser and the perils of comparison
Clearly everyone is doing better than me. They have more subscribers to their newsletter and more followers on Instagram. Their students like them more because they are better teachers. In fact, everyone likes them better. They get invited to all the things that I do not. Their children are happier, because they were better parents. They’re far more beautiful—no random zits or chin whiskers for them. They don’t have to worry about money because they’re independently wealthy. They’ve never snapped at their spouse or spoke out loud the snarky comment that should have gone unsaid. They move through the world in a brilliant cloud of calm and good will. If they think of me at all, it’s with the vaguest sense of pity.
Okay, maybe not, but doesn’t it just feel that way sometimes? Like everyone else is winning and you’re still standing at the starting line in a panicked daze? The race may not be over yet, but, already, you’re clearly the loser.
Of course, life is not actually a game to be won or lost. In fact, very few aspects of life have clear winners or losers. This doesn’t keep us from acting as if they do. We’re determined to win every argument, to come out on top in every interaction. This is especially true if, like me, you have a bit of a competitive streak. I want to win. I want to be right. I want to be best, even when I have no idea what that might mean.
Maybe it’s that competitive streak that has me lately feeling rather loser-ish. Maybe it’s my recent birthday, a big reminder that my forties are almost over and what have I really accomplished?
Maybe it’s being a writer, where there’s always some comparison to be made that will make you come out the loser. Lately it feels like everyone and their aunt are getting book deals or awards. You can compare yourself to death in any field, I guess, but in the world of writing it seems especially easy to do.
Maybe it’s social media, which is, of course, designed to make you feel like a loser. If social media is a game with winners and losers, the game is truly rigged against you. Work as hard as you like, but the algorithm will always come out on top.
Regardless of the reasons behind my case of the losers, the end result is that I get very antsy and restless. I have to fix it somehow. I have to pull ahead and it has to happen now. All at once. I get so many ideas for how to start winning, usually none of them consistent with my actual values or integrity, let alone feasible. Society convinces us that it all is fixable. If I work hard enough or come up with the perfect strategy, I can become a winner. Losing, after all, is always our own fault, right?
In her book, Bittersweet, Susan Cain talks about how the meaning of the word, ‘loser,’ has changed over time. Originally, to be a loser was merely to be ‘one who suffers loss.’ In this sense of the word, all of us are losers at one point or another. We lose our keys or our dog or our best friend. You cannot make it through the world without suffering a loss.
An alternative meaning of loser began to show up in the language in the 19th century. A loser is not just a person who suffers a loss as we all do, but a specific type of person, one who habitually fails to win. And those failures are clearly because they just weren’t trying hard enough. Loss goes from a natural state of being to a sign of your total uselessness as a person.
What explains this change? Well, capitalism, of course. Capitalism cannot function without creating winners and losers. Capitalism only works if people are constantly losing their jobs, creating a reserve army of the unemployed who allow owners to pay lower wages. Don’t believe me? See what happened during the pandemic when that army of unemployed people suddenly didn’t give a shit about working? Wages went up and supply chains broke and capitalism suddenly looked very wobbly. If people realized that the losing was not actually their fault, that it’s capitalism, stupid, well, all hell would break loose. Viva, la revolution!
Stepping out of the capitalist narrative of winners and losers takes some effort, but eventually, I realize that the real fix is to stop for a moment. Take a deep breath (all the truly good ideas start with a deep breath). Make a list of everything I have. Remember that even those things don’t make me a ‘winner.’ As Richard Rohr says, it’s all undeserved—losing and winning. All of it’s grace.
I remember all the things I was sure would look like winning that I’ve now forgotten. Getting a Ph.D. Being a college professor. Getting married. Publishing a book. And on and on. And here I am, on the other side of all those wins, still feeling like a loser. Perhaps, I tell myself, there is no win that can fix this feeling. Perhaps this feeling has nothing to do with winning or losing. Perhaps the only fix is much more complicated. The only fix is the hard work of turning away from external validation. It’s the slow and arduous project of figuring out what makes me happy. What fills my soul. What maybe, just maybe, makes the world a little better even if I never get 1,000 subscribers. It’s the work of a lifetime and no one’s keeping score.
What do you tell yourself when you get a case of the losers?