Today, I had my dental check up. The woman who cleans my teeth is a chatty person as I suspect all hygienists are. After all, if your day is spent with people who can’t talk because you have their mouths propped open, you find ways to pass the time.
Over the years, I’ve come to know many things about my hygienist. I know what her sons studied in college. I know their grade point averages. I know when she’s dating someone. I know what types of surgery she’s had.
But today, she had other things on her mind. A few months, my dentist, her boss, suddenly retired and sold his practice. Now I am a huge coward when it comes to dental work, so this caused me much concern. But today I realized how traumatic it was for the staff as well: Their work days were changed as well their work weeks. Their vacation time was also changed. And suddenly they were using different equipment and becoming more computerized.
I was going to offer my sympathy when I could speak again, but then she said that she’d learned something else as well. She leaned over and whispered in my ear that as good as the previous dentist had been, these two were even better. She shook her head. “With the workshops and training I’ve had, it’s amazing how much I’ve learned in the past two months. They are just excellent.”
She went on to tell me about her son’s new cat, but I was only half-listening. I couldn’t stop thinking about what she’d said.
It is easy to become complacent. If no one is calling for your head or resignation, you think that things are going fine. And, let’s face it, so many of us have so much to do on any given day, we justifiably feel that if something’s not broken, then why worry about fixing it?
But there is a problem with that. Not improving doesn’t just mean standing still; it usually means, little by little, falling back. So it’s important to pay attention. It means knowing what’s going on and providing services before people start asking for them.
And the best way to do that is to compare yourself with the best and see where you need to improve. This may be in the workplace. When I go to library meetings and conferences, I am constantly taking notes on what other libraries are doing. Even if our students and faculty aren’t asking for certain things now, it’s important to be ready when they do.
But it’s not just the workplace. Almost any aspect of our lives can benefit from comparison. (WARNING: This is not an exercise to feel bad about yourself. This is a way to improve. Believe me, I’m not saying go look at air-brushed photos of a supermodel if you want to improve your looks.) If you want to be a better friend, compare yourself to someone who has great friendships to see what you can do to improve yours. If you want to write a better research paper, compare your strategies with the person in the class who’s always getting A’s.
It’s human nature to surround ourselves with people who are similar to us. And that’s fine, except when it comes to improving. Fred, who goes to the happy hour with you and then is your companion in your mad dash to the library the night before the paper is due, is not a good role model for grade improvement, no matter how fantastic he is at teaching you to get the bar tender to give you a couple of free appetizers with your beer.
There are times when comparison is necessary, and when it is, always compare with the best.