Reader Request Week 2008 #5: Professional Jealousy

Brendan wants to know about:

Dealing with professional jealousy.

I’m not talking about nasty, stalking vendettas or anything, but comparing of yourself to others in your field to an unhealthy degree. Seeing someone else succeed can be a personal motivator, especially if you can learn how they did it, but it can cross the line into harmful obsession when a lot of your emotional well-being gets wrapped up into it. I’d love to be the sort of person who never experiences pangs of real jealousy, but mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

So:

Topic #1: Dealing with your own jealousy of a colleague’s success.

Topic #2: Dealing with a colleague’s jealousy of your success.

I don’t engage much in professional jealousy. The closest I ever came to it was in 2001, when Dave Auburn, with whom I went to college, won the Pulitzer Prize for writing the play Proof. I was at my computer, writing a video game review and feeling pretty smug that I was getting paid to play video games, and then I clicked over to CNN and saw what Dave had been doing with his morning. And in sequence, these were my thoughts:

1. Dude, I know Dave Auburn!

2. Aw, man, I want a Pulitzer, too.

3. But writing video game reviews, while fun, is not the path to Pulitzer goodness.

4. Oh, well.

5. I ought to write Dave an e-mail and congratulate him.

Which is what I did.

At no time during this was I actually jealous of Dave. Partly because, you know, Dave put in the time – he supported himself writing pharmaceutical copy while he learned his craft, if I remember, and then wrote an excellent play (he also won a Tony Award for it). It’s hard to be jealous of people who deserve the acclaim they get. Partly because knowing someone who is being successful is cool; it’s nice to see people I was friendly with at one point in my life doing well. And then partly because, while I didn’t get a Pulitzer (and still haven’t, nor am likely to in the near future), I was still playing video games and getting paid to write about them, and on balance that continued to be a pretty sweet deal. I couldn’t really be jealous if I was actually happy with my life, and I was (and still am). So when I wrote Dave that congratulatory e-mail, I was able to be genuine and genuinely happy for him.

Personally I find being happy with one’s life takes care of nearly all jealousy issues. Jealousy is a cocktail of envy and covetousness and neurosis, but if you have a life in which you are happy, it’s difficult to be either envious or covetous, since that would imply dissatisfaction with your own life (I’m still neurotic from time to time). People sometimes ask me if there were something I could change about my past, what it would be, and I tell them honestly that there’s nothing in my past I’d change, because I wouldn’t want to risk not getting to my present. Jealousy works the same way; being jealous, professionally or otherwise, would suggest I think someone else’s life would be better for me than the one I have. And, well. Just not seeing that.

The other thing about jealousy, particularly of the professional sort, is that I think it’s ultimately predicated on the idea that life is somehow zero-sum: that someone else’s success takes away from whatever success you might have, either in the short term or, if you’re feeling particularly apocalyptic, ever. And I think that’s kind of silly. Lots of people are wildly more successful than I am, and perhaps are more successful than I will ever be; it hasn’t stopped me from being pretty happily successful in my own way. I’m likewise sure that my being successful, to the extent that I am, doesn’t impede the success of anyone else.

(Indeed, I think it’s the opposite. A fellow writer of mine likes to joke that my job is to be successful enough that our mutual publisher can afford to publish someone like him. I don’t suspect I’m anywhere near that successful at the moment (or that this author needs my help), but I like the idea; I would love to be someone who, like Robert Jordan did, helps pour enough money into a publishing house that the house was able to publish a few more authors every year than it would have been able to otherwise.)

As for how do I deal with other folks being jealous of me in a professional sense? Well, mostly, I don’t. The type of people who are jealous of me don’t appear to put themselves in my path with any regularity, so I don’t have to deal with them on a daily basis. Also, you know, what should I do? It’s their karma, not mine. I’m not going to change what I do to make them feel a little less jealous; it’s not my responsibility, and at the end of the day, I still have a mortgage to pay for. So I’ll keep doing what I do. If it makes someone upset or jealous, they’ll just have to live with it.

But I hope for their sake they’ll let it go. Any amount of time and energy they spend on being jealous of me (or anyone else) is less time and energy they have to spend on building success for themselves. In that respect, jealousy really is about a zero-sum game. But they are the person who inevitably loses.

(there’s still time to ask questions for Reader Request Week 2008: Post your question here.)

12 thoughts on “Reader Request Week 2008 #5: Professional Jealousy

  1. It is not a competition unless one makes it so, at which time it is no more than a perception in the mind, only real enough to hurt the one who (for whatever emotional reason) put it there.

  2. Okay, so you weren’t jealous. But were you envious?

    (Professional Jealousy would be much more attractive if the rates were better)

  3. AOL passed over me for Fanhouse, but hired my good friend Sportz Assassin.

    I was like totally happy for Sportz, who worked at some go-nowhere factory job. Out of the blue, he now got to do what he loved to do… for pay…. and even cheap old AOL prolly pays better than that factory.

    We started blogging at the same time, and- as a school teacher- I was very proud to see him get the big break.

    He’s a good writer, too… and him being mired in a factory job with the talent he had always made me think that the system is a little fucked up. Him scoring that gig restored some of my faith in the Grand Plan.

    I say all of this with total honesty.

    I should also add that I was also ready-to-kill jealous.

    I mean… you know… I put in fucking WORK for your old boss in Virginia. No one works harder, is more faithful to one ISP, is faster on the draw, etc… They never considered me, and it was a crushing blow to my ego that I still haven’t shook off, to be honest.

    So… try balancing A and B, happiness and despair. I think I get where you went with this article, and I’m known for missing even the sharpest of points.

  4. David Auburn is one of two screenwriters that I will go to see anything they write. Proof was brilliant.

  5. Thanks – insightful as always, especially the part about the fallacious presumption of a zero-sum game.

  6. In this vein, could you repost (or post a link to) your wonderful “I don’t care if you are a better writer than me” bit? It was an absolute gem, and new people should be able to read it.

  7. As they say “living well is the best revenge.” I think everyone has some dreams they haven’t attained – some of them very unrealistic (being a pro quarterback), some not attained as the results of choices made.

    A college roommate of mine is now CEO of a medium-sized company, and for a moment or two I was envious when I heard that. But he is very bright, and I know that I personally decided years ago not to put the time and effort into chasing that carrot. I’d rather be chasing my wife and kids.

    The theatre world has numerous emotionally immature people chasing unrealistic dreams and thus jealous and envious. I know I started out that way. For that reason I prefer not to burst someone else’s bubble. Reality will set in soon enough. What doesn’t kill us can make us stronger and wiser if we let it.

  8. This is excellent, and especially the part about the non-zero-sum nature of success. In my work experience, those who DO see success as zero-sum inevitably end up bitter (or, if successful, just horrible people), whereas those who figure there’s plenty for everybody have an excellent shot at career happiness, almost regardless of the level of objective success (salary, title, book sales, etc.) they now enjoy.

  9. Side note: My acting teacher in San Francisco directed Proof for a theatre in Marin. It’s a good play and I quite enjoyed it.

    I occasionally look at the kids who were making webcomics back when I was making webcomics and some of them have gone on to do notable and wonderful things. (Most obviously the PA guys, but others–who I helped promote on various art sites or whatever–have since put out collections, gotten graphic novels published, been up for Eisners, etc.) Me, I got burnt out artistically on my webcomic, and Epic Failed. I don’t have envy for their awards, but I do have envy for their sheer perseverence.

  10. re: #8 by JJS: I looked that one up. Item # 9 on the list is: “You Will Look Stupid If You’re Jealous.” It even provides the insight that life is not a zero-sum game. So, now I feel bad for making the man repeat himself.

    Sometimes the best new advice is the same old advice.

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