Avoid the Comparison Trap - Tim Bongiovanni (Podcast Episode 19)

How do we escape from the comparison trap? Guest Tim Bongiovanni is a Billboard-charting music producer who is very aware of the temptations in his industry to compare and despair, and he's found a way past these challenges with God's help.

Scripture References

John 3:30
He must increase, but I must decrease. (NRSV)

James 1:2-5
My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. (NRSV)

Additional Resources Referenced

The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis

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​​Leah Archibald: Making It Work is brought to you by The Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary and the Theology of Work Project.

Mark Roberts: Welcome to Making it Work

LA: Through conversation, scripture and stories, we invite God into work’s biggest challenges... so that you can live out your purpose in the workplace. I’m Mark Roberts.

LA: And I’m Leah Archibald. And this is Making It Work.

You can be pretty happy with your job and your lot in life until you open Instagram. And then you're faced with all these people who seem to be doing better than you are. Someone else is making more money, winning higher awards, taking more extravagant vacations, and looking so much more well-rested while they're doing it, and suddenly you don't feel so great about your job anymore. Compare and despair is what we say, but how do we really escape from the comparison trap? Our guest today is a Billboard-charting music producer who is very aware of the temptations in his industry to compare and despair, and he's found a way past these challenges with God's help. Tim Bongiovanni, welcome to the Making It Work Podcast.

Tim Bongiovanni: Thanks so much for having me.

LA: Thanks so much for being here. Tim, you have a job that can sound pretty glamorous to the rest of us. You produce music for a living. But tell us what is your average workday like? Is it really that glamorous?

TB: Well, sometimes it can be pretty exciting. I get the chance to work with artists, and figure out the different harmonies and melodies and the instrumentations. And sometimes I get to sit down and just make music out of nowhere with modern technology. With a couple hours and a laptop, you can make some pretty amazing things happen. Then other days it's actually not very, very glamorous at all. The means by which I make that music is really just me sitting in front of a computer screen, moving a lot of colored blocks around on the screen, left and right, and up and down. And then other days it's really just troubleshooting, figuring out how to make a microphone not pick up the radio or upgrades, ugh, the upgrades [chuckle] that are needed in the studio.

LA: So, you're saying you have a job just like the rest of us have a job, that you fight with the computer and you...

TB: Basically, yeah. Yeah. Sometimes, when inspiration is flowing and everything is great, it's great. And then some days there's boring tasks to be done.

LA: So, I'm gonna stop comparing my job to your job then. [laughter] 'Cause I have a little comparison problem, where I think, "Man, if I could... If my life would be up in a music studio, that would really be fun all day." But what you're saying is you do a lot of the same thing that I do, which is fight with a computer and want the thing do the thing that I want the thing to do.

So tell me how comparison shows up in your work.

TB: Oh, gosh, everyday. Part of it is thinking about how you're looking to get a certain result or looking to get a certain sound. A lot of music is learned, and especially a lot of music production is learned by analyzing things that already exist, which means that you kind of have to face what's being done by other producers and other engineers and new innovations that other people thought of before you, for example. And then the other way is through social media. That's one of the primary ways that I interact and network and find new opportunities.

And one thing that I think is... A friend of mine posted about it a while ago, and said that it's really important in this industry to be seen as on the way up. I think it's something that's felt by a lot of people in my industry, that when you get a big win, your client hit a million views or a million plays, or you got to work with a major label artist, or something like that, you post about it. You're proud of your work, you wanna share about it, and... That partially is just because you're saying, "Hey, friends, celebrate me," or, "Celebrate with me," rather. And then part of that is also saying, "Hey, I'm trusted by names of a certain caliber, and you can trust me too with your work."

LA: Does that feel like a challenging dance in terms of your faith, or even just in terms of your emotional health, when you go on social media?

TB: Oh, sure. [laughter] Yeah, because on some level... You're kind of fighting with this idea of... We always say, "Christ must increase, I must decrease," right? But at the same time you're wanting to showcase your accomplishments because it's how you survive in this business. And so there is a delicate dance to do. And then also it can get discouraging because you can go on there at any given time and see five different accomplishments that your friends and colleagues have shared about, and you don't have one to share for the day. It can be challenging to not fall into this idea that maybe I'm just not good enough to be the part of these opportunities and these accomplishments, and it can get you pretty close to impostor syndrome, which I feel like the comparison trap just leads you to.

LA: Tim, give us an example from your work. Is there a time recently that you were going on social media or feeling particularly challenged by the comparison trap?

TB: Yes, there's one... Recently, I do a lot of work in a capella music and contemporary vocal music. In that community, I have sort of a mentor-type figure. He's always been in my corner, he's been in the game a little bit longer than I have, and we work together regularly. But he shared on social media that he was passing an opportunity to a different mixing engineer.

LA: This is something that you would have hoped he would have... Some work that he was doing, you would have hoped he would have turned it over to you, being his mentee and he passed it on to somebody else.

TB: Well, I think it was the type of opportunity that I could have at least gotten a call for or maybe been asked about. Instead, it wasn't even brought up in any conversation that this was something he was seeking to do. And the initial reaction, of course, is always to say, "Well, what keeps me from getting that call? Am I just not good enough yet? Am I just not ready?" And so that's the first surface reaction that I had. And then from there, there was a next step action that I decided to take, which was a little out of the ordinary for me.

The easiest way to say it is that, over the past year, I've been doing an awful lot of work on how I approach my day-to-day... About a year ago, I actually hired a business coach because I was trying to figure out how to do my business better. And one of the things that we tackled a lot of is how to deal with ego and how to deal with fear.

And one of the things that I picked up along the way was that, when something is wrong, we shouldn't look at it as... We shouldn't just let it sit and try to get away from that pain that we feel. We should try to grow from it and learn from it. And that certainly resonates with my foundation as a Christian, these ideas that trials and tribulations, we should rejoice in them 'cause there's things to be learned there. And so I decided to take a leap of faith, 'cause the previous way I would have handled it would be to probably sit and be hurt for a minute, and then not say anything for fear that it would be too awkward, and then just go and probably work really hard on something and just to try to feel like I need to get better, I need to get better, and put a lot of pressure on myself. And instead, with this mindset, I decided to call my mentor and bring it up and ask him, in a very respectful way trying not to make any waves, but just in the name of personal growth and trying to figure out more about who I am as a producer and engineer and artist by learning more about what I'm not and why I don't get that call for this particular gig.

LA: And before you go on in your story, 'cause I wanna hear about how this call went, but you mentioned this verse, "Consider it joy when trials come," and it's from James Chapter 1 and it's so... As the verse gets extended, it really talks about exactly what you're talking about, is searching for more wisdom and understanding, coming out of trials. And the actual verse, the verse that you mentioned is James 1 Verse 2. And as I'm reading it, it says, "Count it all joy my brothers, when you met trials of various kinds for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness." And then in Verse 5, it says, "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given to him." I'm floored that you really did what this verse says. Instead of comparing yourself, feeling bad and hiding in the sand, you went and, sought some wisdom, "How can I learn from this?"

TB: Thanks, I guess. [Chuckle.] I think that in the moment it was really just the fact that it was kind of a culmination moment of a lot of rethinking about my place in my industry, and my place in my business, and my place in the world and where I am in my faith. I try to base most of my decisions and most of my learning off of who I am at my core, and first that's a Christian, that's a follower of God.

LA: So, what was that decision that you made, you went ahead and you called your mentor?

TB: Yes. I went ahead and I called him and we had a great conversation, and he told me that the decision actually was put together based on a... It was a previous relationship, so the client that he was connecting to one of my competitors they had known each other for a while, and there was an existing relationship there, which is really just mostly what it was about. And it was great. And from that, I learned, "Okay, so is there a way that I can increase my presence? Is there a way that I can build more relationships in my community so that if there is an opportunity, I might be available to be of service?"

MR: I'm struck, Tim, by something you said about knowing who you are at the core. And for you that's very much a person in a relationship with God, and so your faith really matters to you, and it defines who you are. So much of it seems like the problem of comparison is that it's really easy to define who we are, in comparison.

TB: Absolutely.

MR: I am worthwhile as a human being because I am better than that person, more successful than that person. And this is from the earliest days, and I relate to this, 'cause I think... I was pretty good in school growing up, and one of the ways I knew I was pretty good is I was better than other kids. And that gave me a sense of self, a sense of identity. I am the guy that can do better than others. And there was truth in that, but the problem was I was coming to see myself so much that way, that that's who I really was. I was a person who was good in school, and could accomplish things almost more than I was a son who was loved by my parents and a brother. So, later in life, we're kind of wired to really get our sense of self, not just from our own accomplishments, but from the fact that we've accomplished more than others, are better than others. And if that's our core, then we got a problem because every time...

LA: Mark, have you...

MR: Go ahead, yeah.

LA: Mark, how have you been able to get past that in your own life, or how have you rewritten your sense of self?

MR: Well, partly, I would admit, it's a life-long struggle, to really live into who I am in Christ and let that be more important than the fact that I am successful or that I'm better than others. I love Tim's story. I've got a... It's not quite the same story, but many years ago, when I was first starting out, I hired somebody under me and worked for me. He did great, and we became great friends. And so I was his boss, and I was his mentor, and that was all good. Now, he's my boss, I work for him. I wrote books before he did.

LA: That sounds unfair.


MR: Well, I wrote books before he did. He's written books. His books have sold 10 times my books. In many, many measures, he is more successful than I am. What do I do with that? I could feel bad about myself, that would be a sad place to be. I could learn to rejoice in his successes, that would be a better place to be. But even more important than that is my growing sense of who I am, what God has called me to do. And so faithfulness becomes more important than success or victory by comparison. But I am not suggesting that's an easy process, for me anyway. It continues to be a lifelong journey of knowing who I am in Christ, knowing what I've called been called to do, and really delighting in that and in serving God, not my ego, or getting my value from being better than others.

LA: It's really such a challenge at work. I imagine it might be easier in other spheres of your life, but work is really a sphere of doing, it's a sphere of productivity, accomplishment. "What do I have to show for the hours that I've been putting in?" So, if someone else is showing something different, or showing something better, I feel that it's much more challenging in the workplace than in any other area of my life. For example, I grew up comparing myself to my brother because he's younger, but he's a heck of a lot smarter than I am. He's a neuro-physicist, God bless him. But within the family... I could kind of get a sense of, "Oh, but I love him, he's different from me, he's a different child of God, he's a different child of my parents." And we're not trying to accomplish the exact same thing 'cause we're in different industries, we have different jobs. But in the workplace, when I see people who are trying to accomplish the exact same thing that I'm trying to accomplish, and they're doing better, and maybe they're doing better with putting in fewer hours or having more accomplishments outside of their work, that really rankles me.

MR: You know so much of it comes down to... And again, your language Tim, is there strength in the core of who I am? And is there clarity about that? I, for many years, was a pastor. And pastors are amazingly competitive, and you're always comparing. Right? Bigger church, bigger growth, new building, bigger budget, more books, more speaking, on and on and on. And it's almost pathetic to come to a group of pastors meeting each other for the first time, because everybody's doing this thing, and it really just comes... For most of us, it isn't even so much a pride thing, it's an inadequacy thing. I'm not okay if my church isn't doing not only well but better than that person's church. Now, that needs some real adjustment to know who I am, to know what God has called my particular church to be, and then really to be content in that.

There's this verse in Philippians 4, where Paul talks about lacking various things and having various things, and sometimes it's great and sometimes it's not, but he says, "I've learned to be content with whatever I have." And I think that... It's not just that he was content, it's that, "I learned to be content." In other words, this took time, this took work, this wasn't just an instant thing. Maybe he was still learning to be content, we don't know that, but I think there's just such an encouragement. And, Tim, your story, your example is an encouragement to keep on learning. You're working on yourself, you're learning things about yourself, you're reaching out to learn even more about yourself. And so it isn't just instant contentment but you're in that process of learning and growing.

TB: The other piece that's been really helpful for me is understanding where my true value is. I think that Mark was getting at this a little bit, but the idea that, for a long time, what drove me was this idea that my quality of work, when it was on this weird hierarchy list, and maybe I was, I don't know, 127th from the top. And so I was able to get opportunities that were in that middle range for the a capella scene. It's probably a much bigger number in the pop music scene and things like that. But what I've come to realize is that it's not necessarily just about the quality of what I'm able to produce, of what I'm able to put out there. There is going to be a need for your work to be of a certain level, but that's just the surface, that's just the baseline.

Past that, the thing that is important is you. There are going to be people out there who are gonna resonate with me creatively in a really genuine way that other people might not be able to resonate with those people the same way. And so the interesting thing to me, the more I think about it and the more I reflect on it, is that my value truly is from God. And that is a great comfort to me in those moments of the comparison trap simply because I know that perhaps I wasn't a good fit for that project simply because it wasn't the... I wasn't the right person, whole person for it. And there are other ones, there's other opportunities, there's other people that I can actually serve better and it's just a matter of finding them.

LA: This story had a happy ending, didn't it? Tell me what happened with your mentor.

TB: Yes. What happened was he called me up about... I guess it was a couple of weeks ago now, and said that the same client that he had decided to pass on to one of my competitors was looking to build a team for something else that they were doing. Basically, that first call let my mentor know that I was interested in building a relationship with this other client, and I don't think I'd get that second call without that first call, and it's turned out to be fantastic. We've had excellent phone conversations, he's sent me some really cool things to work on, and it's going to be an ongoing opportunity that I'm gonna get to work on a lot of really cool music with one of the best directors in the country for a capella. It actually worked out. I couldn't have planned it better.

LA: It's a happy ending.

Tim, we're gonna close. In closing, do you have one piece of advice for people who are looking at that Facebook feed and have that moment of, like, "Oh, the comparison trap." What would be your one first step out of that?

TB: Oh, man. I think the first step would be to think, "Okay, what can I learn from this?" 'Cause there might very well be something that you can learn from seeing something that would make you fall into that comparison trap. The other thing, I think, would be to try to take joy in what other people are doing as well as what you're doing. We talked a lot about humility, and I just keep thinking about the definition that I remember from CS Lewis. I read "The Screwtape Letters" a long time ago, but I remember this one thing from that, which was being humble is as much about taking joy in everybody else's work as much as your own, rather than thinking of your own work as not as good.

LA: Wow, I love that. Mark, do you have a closing piece of advice for people who are facing the comparison trap?

MR: Well, I think what we've learned from Tim is just worth underscoring, that it will be a trap as long as we're getting our sense of self, our value from something other than the core of who we are in Christ. And I will always be vulnerable to getting stuck in that trap when, either in my victories or in my losses, I compare myself to others. It's just as bad if I win. I got the contract and now I'm thinking I'm so great.

TB: Right, that's an excellent point.

MR: So, either side is a trap. The way out of the trap, it seems, and, Tim, what you've so clearly explained, is really knowing who I am in Christ, having that be the center and the core. And if that's there, then the comparisons won't have the power. Either to lift me up inappropriately or to knock me down inappropriately, I will be solid in terms of who I am in Christ. And then I can learn, and then I can learn from when others do well, then I can even rejoice in the successes of others.

TB: And the last thing that I'll say is that that's definitely not a switch that gets flipped. It's not like you just start to think of it differently and all of a sudden, "Oh... "

LA: "Oh, okay, I just won't do that anymore."

TB: Yeah that's right.

LA: "That was easy."

TB: It's much more of a day-to-day... I find myself reminding myself of this on a daily basis as I sit down and do my morning reflections and things, because it's not the type of thing that you'd ever get or that I've ever gotten 100%. I still struggle with it, so it's an ongoing process.

LA: Tim, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today and sharing your story.

TB: Thanks so much for having me, this was lot of fun.

MR: Yes, thank you.

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