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Area 51 in Nebraska, Suicides, and the Danger of Comparing Yourself to Others

By Dec 12,2014 Follow Me on Google+

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Summary
You can get miraculous results in life and work when you are not in competition with others. Comparing yourself with those around you can lead to a sense of defeat and negativity that can pervade your life, needlessly undermining your efforts. Be your own person and conduct your life on your own terms, and your results will be far greater than if you had limited yourself by comparison to others.

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During my last year of law school, I was walking back from class one day and passed an old apartment I had lived in during my first year of law school.  Wearing shorts and no shirt, a classmate of mine was crouched outside against a wall in the fetal position. It was cold outside and he was washing his pick up truck.

I knew him from my first year of law school but had not spoken with him recently.  He had been a fighter pilot before entering law school.  He was small, very fit, and a smart guy.

When I first met him, he told me a story about him and two other pilots, who had once been flying more than 1,000 miles per hour over Nebraska and had gotten slightly off course.  An armada of five or six unmarked fighter jets had appeared and made them immediately land at some small base they did not even know existed. They were put in jail, isolated from one another, and interrogated for more than a week. Their interrogators asked them over and over again what they had seen while they were off course. The interrogators also seemed very angry, and lots of people from the National Security Administration (a non-military branch of the government) were brought in to question them as well.

The pilots had seen nothing and did not know what was going on.  They were eventually released and returned to their home base.

What

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Where

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I thought this story was absolutely fascinating. I had not spoken much with the guy in a few years, and on this day he appeared to be somewhat disoriented. He also looked like he had been in a fight and his face was bruised. I walked up to him and said hello.

“What’s going on?” I asked him.

He told me that he had just returned from Washington, D.C., where he had gone the previous night (it is about two hours from where I went to law school in Charlottesville) and had been drinking until 2:00 a.m.  He had also gotten in a fight that evening. He then slept in his truck and drove home in the morning. Since it was a Tuesday morning, I remember finding this somewhat unusual.

“Who did you go with?” I asked him.

“Alone.  I went alone,” he told me. “I just need to get out of this place sometimes. Everyone in this law school is nuts.  They say, ‘I’m going to work at this firm or that firm.  I got this grade in this.  So-and-so is stupid.  How much money are you going to make?  Why would anyone take a job there?  How much did you study?’  There is nothing human about this—people have become robots. I just need to go someplace where I can be around humans. I am glad I got in a fight because it made me feel human. I just wish I had not gotten hit so hard. My head still hurts.”

I remember at the time being impressed with this guy. I did not know what I found so interesting about his drinking and fighting experience–perhaps that it was so unusual.  Most law students do not travel two hours on a Monday night to go drinking alone, get in fights, and sleep in pickup trucks. I was also mesmerized by his analysis of the law school experience. I think I identified with it to some degree as well.

I never spoke with the guy again. Several years later, I ran into one of my law school classmates and he told me that the former pilot had put a gun to his head and committed suicide. I could not help but thinking this must have been connected to the profound alienation with life in law school that he had expressed the day I saw him.

When I was 26 years old and in my last year of law school, I decided that I was going to become an extremely successful asphalt contractor. I am not sure why I thought this, but I did. Up until that point, the work I had done was nothing all that unusual. I did lots of small residential asphalt jobs and a few commercial ones. My operation was not all that professional, but I did my best. I had earned decent money in the summer running my own asphalt business; however, the money was not exceptional—just good.

I am not sure why, but asphalt was just something I wanted to do as a long-term career–despite being in law school being trained for a completely different sort of life. I was very enthusiastic about this possibility and was looking forward to doing it.

I was not enjoying law school, watching my classmates compete with one another so aggressively.  There was something disempowering about the competition, backstabbing, and the entire way the legal-oriented society seemed to work.  It seemed something that would lead to a lot of unfulfilling lives. A good percentage of casual conversations I had with other law students (and witnessed between other students) would invariably deal with things like:

  • How prestigious is the firm where someone else (not the person speaking) had gotten a job
  • The grades someone else (not the person speaking) had gotten in a class
  • The honors someone else (not the person speaking) had received—either recently, or even in the distant past
  • How little someone else (not the person speaking) had to study to receive good grades
  • How many interviews someone else (not the person speaking) had received

At the time, this did not bother me all that much because it seemed normal to me.  In fact, I did not notice this until it was pointed out by the fighter pilot I saw huddled near his truck that day.

Nevertheless, something about the conversations I witnessed made me extremely uncomfortable: What I realized after some time was that it was all based on a sense of lack.

Despite their enthusiasm for their futures, most of my fellow law students felt an extreme sense of lack and based their self-worth on their comparison with others.  Because there would always be lots of people around them who were more talented, they would always feel a sense of lack. To some extent, they were judging their happiness in comparison to what others were doing.

By comparison, when I was in college, I really did not see this sort of thing. People were glad for others’ successes.  But in law school, the atmosphere was different and brutal.  Whether it was the legal culture in general or the law school I was in—all I knew was that it made me uncomfortable.

I am unsure of what it was about my desire to be an asphalt contractor that took hold of me.  I think it had to do with the fact that I wanted to be original and I did not want to participate in the groupthink that the legal profession seemed to lead to.  Even today, I see that sort of groupthink and competition among the lawyers I know and in the legal profession in general.  It is never ending. I think it causes a lot of stress as well.  Most of the lawyers I know are fairly stressed, fairly unhappy, and a little mixed up by the pressures involved in this groupthink.

What appealed to me most about the asphalt profession was that it involved stepping outside of this groupthink and doing something completely original.  Most (not all) asphalt contractors are a pretty rough bunch.  They are used to dealing with other rough people, and many look like they eat nails for breakfast.  The last thing these guys could care about was what social club you were part of at Yale, or whether or not you worked in an Am Law 100 law firm.  This profession (to me) appeared raw and pure, sort of like fighting a stranger in a bar just for the experience.

What is so remarkable to me about my decision to be an asphalt contractor was how quickly everything changed in my life once I reached this decision. It was absolutely incredible—and I owe a lot of this to the fact that there was no one around to discourage me or for me to compare myself with. I did not know personally any other asphalt contractors at the time. (Had I known other asphalt contractors, I think this might have changed my entire experience.)

I had been going about my life with the plan of being an attorney. After graduation from law school, I had lined up a job with a federal judge in Michigan (where I am from).  After the job with the federal judge, I had lined up another job with a large New York City law firm. Despite going through the motions and taking the job with the federal judge, I was only doing it because I thought it was an experience I should have for the future—and not necessarily because I was not 100% committed to being an asphalt contractor.

The second I graduated from law school, I started getting so much asphalt business I could not believe it. My phone rang constantly, and practically every person I met who needed asphalt work, and they wanted me to do it. There was something that became just too convincing about me. Strange things happened. More work than I could handle appeared out of nowhere.

Once I started my work with the federal judge, I did less than three days’ worth of asphalt work during the clerkship (only on weekends), but the profitability of the work boggled my mind. A few months into my clerkship, I did some work one weekend for an apartment complex in Detroit, and the owner could not afford to pay me instantly.  Instead, he sent me a check each month for a year.  I remember these checks (for about fifteen hours work) were more money (and profit) each month than I had made each month working for the judge—and they totaled to more money than I had made over the course of the entire clerkship.

More and more stuff continued to happen within months—stuff that almost seemed to be driven by a power beyond my comprehension:

  • I took an asphalt trailer worth about $500 to a welding company to get some work done.  The place I took it to burned down.  Within a week, the insurance company of the welding company replaced it with a new trailer worth probably $20,000.
  • Someone sold me a truck worth around $15,000 for $1,000 when I told them it was all I had (no, it was not stolen).
  • I was hired to redo the roads of an entire school system despite never having bid on or worked on a project that large. (The job took three days and also paid more than I would make working for the judge in a year.)
  • I went out one weekend while working at the clerkship and made more than $10,000 in one day.

I worked for the judge for a year.  In the summer following my clerkship, I do not even remember what happened.  All I can say is it was incredibly profitable and everything seemed to go my way.  Within a month of ending my clerkship, I was driving a very expensive Porsche that I did not think I would be driving even when I was 50.  I was making so much money that I decided to go to Greece and Turkey for a month and stay in five-star hotels and lounge around on the beach.

When I returned from Greece and Turkey, I decided to go do a few more asphalt jobs because I enjoyed the work so much.  I had a job lined up as an attorney in California and had decided I would work there for a few years before becoming an asphalt contractor full time.  There was something about the law, the peer pressure, and the competition that just kept drawing me toward it–despite a deep desire to be an asphalt contractor.

A few days before leaving for California, I was in the back of a hardware store loading up some materials I had purchased to do some work. A stranger came up to me out of nowhere and wanted to talk. I have no idea why, or how, but a few days later I was in this guy’s office and he pulled out of his desk drawer a grocery bag full of $100 bills.

“It’s all there,” he said.

He had negotiated a price to purchase the business from me.

What business?

  • I had no decent customer lists.
  • He never took time to review financial records.
  • He was not interested in any promotional material of the business.

At the time, I was just a guy driving around in a nice truck towing a tank and doing asphalt work.

Keep in mind, this all occurred a days before my leaving to go to work in California. The business was not for sale and the guy who bought it was not even a contractor.  He was in the salted nut business. But I decided to sell.

If by chance you you were thinking there was “red hot” demand for the service I was offering, you would be wrong.  I was living in a blue-collar town and asphalt work is something that a lot of people do in blue-collar towns.  In fact, I was living in an economically depressed town when most of this was occurring.

I bought a house with the proceeds from the sale of the business.  A few years later, I had flipped a few houses and the original money from the house had turned into more than $1.5 million.

What does all of this mean?

I think what it shows is that magic can occur in our lives and careers when we are not surrounded by the negativity of others—and competition with them.  When you start comparing yourself with others and start feeling negative, lesser than, or defeated, that is the life you end up living.  The only thing that keeps us from riches, happiness, and success is our mental attitude.

Everything that happens in your life follows the internal movements of your mind.  If you are consciously and subconsciously comparing yourself to others, then you are subconsciously telling yourself you are not as good as others, and this undermines you and the results you are getting from your life.

When I chose to step outside the world of competition in the legal profession, miraculous things started to happen to me and my life. I think what made this time so effective—and why so many good things came my way–was that I had no basis of comparison to anyone, or anything.  The results I got were not limited by my comparisons to others. I was my own person, doing what I wanted, and on my own terms. This is how you get miraculous results in your life.

THE LESSON

You can get miraculous results in life and work when you are not in competition with others. Comparing yourself with those around you can lead to a sense of defeat and negativity that can pervade your life, needlessly undermining your efforts. Be your own person and conduct your life on your own terms, and your results will be far greater than if you had limited yourself by comparison to others.

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  • William Henderson

    Harrison, I always enjoy your stories. There is definitely a nugget of truth here. Best regards, Bill H.

  • Great article! I am sharing this with my team. I know you wrote this forever ago, but it speaks to exactly the type of article I was looking for in Google! Thank You!

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