What’s Your Benchmark?
It’s human nature to want to know where we fit. To understand our place in the pecking order. To know where we stand against others. To be clear if we’re better or worse? Often, we find ourselves comparing our insides (how we feel) to other people’s outsides (what they present to the world) and end up feeling like we’re below par. The affliction of comparatitis sets in and we end up only looking at where we fit, rather than who we are, what strengths we have and what value we bring. It’s a sure-fire way to add a lot of gloom to your life. Yet, there are some ways to add a little dose of logic to your need for comparison, to allow facts, rather than feelings, to have a place in your head. I believe knowing what you’re benchmarking against can help us all to gain a little perspective to convince the comparatitis to give us a break. Let me tell you two benchmark stories:
When I worked in sport (tennis), a lot of conversations started with the words ‘do you play’. For me, I dabbled a little bit in tennis. I played with my Dad on holiday when I was a kid and I like watching it on the telly. On a good day, with the wind in the right direction and when playing against someone who can put the ball exactly where I need it to be (like a professional tennis coach!) I can hit a seriously average forehand. My backhand is less than average and my serving wouldn’t be amiss on a laugh at me TikTok video! What I later discovered when other people said they ‘played a bit’ or ‘used to play when they were younger, but not much now’ was that they ‘only’ made it to the third round of Junior Wimbledon! To them ‘dabbling a bit’ meant they were competing at local or national (or even international level). For me, dabbling was knowing the basics of how to hold a racquet and occasionally hit a ball into the court. We were benchmarking ourselves on wildly different scales.
When people find out that I play the piano, they often ask me if I’m a ‘good’ player. To this, I usually say ‘no, I’m rubbish’. When what I really mean is I want to be better. I had lessons for many years as a kid, I can sight read basic tunes (usually labelled ‘easy piano’), and, when I practice, I can learn to play a whole piece of simple music to a basic standard. I cannot play by ear and I have small hands, so lots of complex chords aren’t my thing. I play for joy, not for performance. My undergrad is in Music, where nearly everyone was at a higher standard of pianoing than I was, and my BFF is the most wonderful player (at that level of talented where he makes it look easy – the kind that comes from decades of hard work and practice!). On this benchmark, I am not a good player, my assessment of ‘rubbish’ is quite accurate. Yet, most of the people who ask me this question do not (and have never) played. They look at music notation and see dots and squiggles (where I hear music) and wouldn’t know what middle C was if it came up and introduced itself to them. To them, playing at all is playing. Again, we are benchmarking on completely different scales.
If you’re going to benchmark yourself, be clear on which benchmarks you are using and why. If you want to be a competitive sports person, and are training to do so, then benchmarking against those on the same (or similar) path to you is probably helpful to understand where you are and to use as a tool to enhance your game. If you’re a ‘play for fun’ level pianist, with no intention of ever performing beyond the odd Christmas singalong with friends (supported by some courage enhancing G&Ts), then comparing your skills to those who are on a more professional level probably isn’t going to help.
If you want a benchmark that will, without fail, always help you to grow and progress, then compare yourself today, to where you were yesterday, last week or last year. Then compare yourself to where you want to be tomorrow, next week or next year and set yourself realistic goals and make a plan of action to get there.