I spent a lot of my childhood in single-wide trailer that we shared for bit with a family of opossums.
More on the opossums in a bit.
My parents got divorced when I was 7 and after my mom divorced her second husband (when I was 10) we got a trailer and moved to a trailer park. That’s where I lived until I graduated high school.
I will never forget the first meal we had there, Taco Bell crunchy tacos, bean and cheese burritos, and a Mexican pizza on the floor of our new living room.
It was so exciting, it was the first time since my parents got divorced that we had our own place.
I was proud.
I was proud of my mom for the work she put in to be independent. She worked two and sometimes three jobs to provide for us (my dad did his part too).
And I was proud that we had a place that was our home.
It never even crossed my mind to be embarrassed that I lived in a single-wide trailer in a trailer park in a small town in Texas.
Or that someone would consider us “trailer trash.”
I was just happy to be there with my mom in “our house.”
I’ve moved on with my life now.
I went off to Austin to go to the University of Texas. After graduating and spending a little time teaching high school, I set off again, this time to New York City to go to law school at Columbia University.
And now I have my own family. My kids will grow up in a house with a yard in Austin, Texas. I want that for them, I don’t want them to grow up in a trailer park in small rural town.
But you know what, I am still proud of our trailer.
Looking back on that day, I now realize that the key to guaranteeing success was wrapped up in why I was proud of my mom instead of embarrassed and frustrated with living in a trailer park.
What You Can Learn from My Trailer Park Childhood
Most people probably wouldn’t characterize eating Taco Bell in your empty trailer on the living room floor as a success.
I get that.
But to me, it was.
Comparing our situation to all the people around us that had more (or less) didn’t really speak to whether we had achieved something that day.
The only comparison that mattered was whether our lives looked better or worse than they had before.
And by that comparison, it was clear that things were headed in the right direction.
If I Had All Those Advantages, I’d Be a Super Hero Too
As you move along the path to achieving success, you compare yourself to others along the way.
And, quite often, others seem to be further along than you are.
You rationalize why they are more successful than you. Why they have achieved more than you have. The, “If I had this or that I would have succeeded too” conversation in our heads.
Whether your rationalization is right or not, this is certainly true:
Comparisons to other people will tell you very little, if anything, useful about your success and whether you are getting closer to achieving it.
The reality is that we all start with a different set of circumstances, some of us are poor, some are wealthy, some of us have great parents, some don’t, some go to amazing schools, some have to work a little harder to get a good education.
We all have our natural gifts and our struggles.
And when we compare ourselves to others, we can’t control for all the variables that make us different. So there is no way to determine if the difference we see is the result of our hard work and dedication or just that grew up in different towns.
As a result, we can’t really draw any conclusions from those comparisons because we can’t really know what they are saying. And importantly, we can’t gauge our future actions based upon them.
An Experiment of One
There is one way to control for all the extraneous variables out there, and get results that are directly tied to your own actions: make comparisons to the only person in the world with the same exact experience you’ve had, your past self.
That way, if you are closer to your goals than your past self was, you know you have been moving in the right direction.
And if you have slipped back a bit, you know that you need to examine how you’ve been doing things, and make a few adjustments.
You don’t need to worry about where everyone else is. They are running a different race that started in a different spot.
Of course, you can learn from people that are in locations that you want to be (particularly those that got there from locations similar to the one you are in now), but just don’t let your happiness depend on how you compare to other people.
Looking back, I realize that that’s why my 10-year old self was so proud.
I wasn’t comparing our trailer to the houses in the rich neighborhood or to the one the Cosby’s had on TV. I was comparing it to where we were before we got our trailer. And having our own place was better than that, so it felt good.
Living in a Trailer is Worse When You Share it with Opossums
Now, about opossums. You probably know they are nocturnal.
You may not know that they like to live in the shoddy insulation of single-wide (and presumably double-wide although we were never fancy enough to have one) trailers.
Well, we had a family of opossums move in to our walls one spring.
Here’s what it taught me. Having opossums in your walls is super creepy.
At night, when they wake up and get ready to start their day, they start crawling around and scratching. So every night, there would be scratching coming from inside of our walls.
It sucked. But I have this story, so there is that.
And, it also gives me another great comparable.
After moving out of the trailer to go to college, I haven’t had nocturnal creatures scratching from the inside of my walls at night. Not once.
So, I’ve felt pretty good about every apartment or house I have lived in since.
You are going to be faced with a situation today where you start to compare yourself to someone else.
When you feel it coming, pause.
Try to replace the comparable with you from five years ago. And then see how you stack up.
If you are progressing, then keep doing what you’re doing. If not, reevaluate.
But either way, the comparison will be useful. It will give you a real indication of where you are, how you are doing, and what action steps you should take next.
And that will guarantee that you move in the right direction, which is really the point.