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On Professional Jealousy & Envy

I was writing last night while peeping into the Twitter feed for the Nebula Awards.

Five years ago--when I'd been doing this for a whopping two years--I would have been seething with jealousy, and wouldn't have gotten any writing done. I might've opened a chat window or written a journal entry or something. (Private journal.) Who knows? But SEETHING, on some level, would have happened.

(I admit this. I am a jealous kind of person. I try not to let it affect my life and relationships with other people, but it's been this way for a long time. I've thought about this a lot, and I think it has more to do with living an insecure childhood than being spoiled. Not that I was spoiled, but I was an only child, and there are some myths about only children that still come flying at me unexpectedly to this day. Look: Only children are normal. The actual evidence suggests we have slight advantages in some situations, no disadvantages. All the only kids I know talked like adults at a young age, because they had only adults to talk to, and that's about it. And I like to think I had the advantage of learning to share with my parents, and not with some obnoxious younger/older twit who didn't have the emotional maturity to reciprocate and share back. Seriously, teaching two kids to share with each other? That has got to be the HARDEST job in the world. )

Disclaimer: the psyche I analyze may just be my own

Anyway, here's the other thing: I see this seethingess in new writers a lot. Not always, not all writers, but I do see it. And when I see it, it perplexes me, because I know I had it, too, and I didn't know why.

When you embark on something, some art, some career, some something where there are qualitative judgments and visceral reactions, and upon those judgments and reactions hinge money, and awards, and incalculable factors like popularity, coolness, and prestige, jealousy is a necessary thing. (For certain personalities, obvs.) You can't get there from here if you don't want that stuff.

And it has to be jealousy, not envy. Envy is wanting what other people have. Jealousy is the envy you get when something is taken from you. And I have a lot of professional envy for many people in my field--for just about everyone who's not me, in point of fact--and that's good, it makes me aware of what's possible, it makes me strive.

But I wouldn't have kept going two years ago if all I'd felt was envy. Envy is a peer-to-peer emotion, in this context.

To really want something, though, enough to go balls to the wall, to risk rejection, to give up time spent on pleasurable pursuits, to disappoint friends and family by parceling out your time, to live in a dirtier-than-average house with an overgrown flower garden--you can't get there from envy. You've got to be jealous. You have to seethe a little. You have to feel ownership over an award you aren't even eligible for, and to feel like you've lost something every time you aren't even nominated.

You have to believe it's yours in order to strive for it. It's a necessary attachment. Otherwise, you absolutely wouldn't bother.

I remember stumbling across a new writer's jealous ranting in a forum or a blog once, and turning away in distaste, wondering why they thought they were even entitled to be this irate about something--anything--at all. But I've literally been thinking about this for a year now, returning to the memory of that rant time and again, and trying to get a handle on it. And it was only last night that I put it all together, that I thoroughly looked at how I felt in 2004, 2005.

So, no, I wasn't jealous last night. (I was jealous of the people who went to the shuttle launch, because I realized I had that opportunity, and let it slip away.) I worked on my book. I checked in on the Twitter feeds. I envied the winners, the nominees. I worked a little harder on my book. But I didn't have to be jealous, because I've gone through that stage of artistic/professional development. I long ago used jealousy as the grappling hook and awards as the medium to embed the hook into, and pulled myself upward.

See, in my mind, the tower (see icon) is a metaphor for the nebulous ball of achievements I want to have by the end of my career. (I suspect it's one of those trick towers, where you don't know you've been inside of it for a long time, but that's another discussion for another day.)

YMMV, and all the usual disclaimers. But I like the notion that jealousy is a valid stepping stone, a visceral reaction that lets you know you are fully engaged with something. It's a helpful indicator for me, to check my path. I am not, for example, particularly jealous of librarians. A little envious at times; never jealous. So, perhaps not a good career path for me, after all (she learns for the ten thousandth time).

Anyway. Thoughts? Boos? Tomatoes?

Comments

( 26 comments — Leave a comment )
(Anonymous)
May. 16th, 2010 01:40 pm (UTC)
どうする?
カハラホテルでもいいけど。
merriehaskell
May. 16th, 2010 02:17 pm (UTC)
If that's spam, it's perhaps the least useful kind I can think of.
sartorias
May. 16th, 2010 01:47 pm (UTC)
I think there are a whole host of motivators, and yep, jealousy is one. To pull yourself out of it and see the "why" imo is a huge step--I had to deal with it as well. Yeesh, what a fight. And totally with myself.
merriehaskell
May. 16th, 2010 02:13 pm (UTC)
Absolutely, to all of what you just said. Certainly not the only motivator. Doubtless not universal to all.

I am a little perplexed I didn't catch onto why until now. I did realize it was useful at times--I'd come back from conventions and write feverishly to "catch up" (with the people I'd just seen). I didn't realize it might be an important stage for me, and one that I couldn't have skipped.
cathshaffer
May. 16th, 2010 02:27 pm (UTC)
On Professional Jealousy & Envy
wow! Brilliant post. Will link and respond more later. Regarding only cildren, the anthropologically optimal family config is at LEAST three years,preferably more for the reasons you stated. We trauamatize our toddlers by giving them sibs.
behindpyramids
May. 16th, 2010 02:45 pm (UTC)
I love this post, so much...and it is giving me a lot of comfort on a day of bleh.

1) Only children. I'm an only child too...I never thought to connect it with jealousy, but I do feel like there's a way in which I'm entitled to love, affection and attention: lots of it, and keep it coming. In some ways I think it's made me more able to give this to other people...I don't worry that someone's going to come take my toys. On the other hand, I've found it very difficult to be satisfied with relationships outside the ones I have with my parents, because I have such high expectations for giving and getting.

2) I am full of jealousy. Some days (like today) I am nothing but a volcano full of jealousy...and it stops me from doing anything I need to do. Thank you for bringing this up and analyzing it as a constructive force rather than a destructive one. I've been full of guilt and anxiety--how to get rid of it? What to do?
But I also think mine comes from a fundamental insecurity. I want to be writing. I don't know if I'll ever make it. I really don't have much else going on in my life that I think is important. To think that I may not make it, and then to see someone else get an award...oh it's killer.
merriehaskell
May. 16th, 2010 04:53 pm (UTC)
#2) See Steph Burgis's comment below. I'm pretty sure she's right. There's nothing you're saying I've not experienced, if there's any consolation in that. Doing the work helped a ton. I avoided the work for years, largely because I think I knew I wasn't going to be perfect and successful right off the bat, and that just made me mad at myself later for wasting time.
behindpyramids
May. 16th, 2010 08:30 pm (UTC)
I'm really enjoying the comments from this post. The work is definitely it's own cure, but then that makes the gaps between the work all the more painful. There's a comfortable after glow of achievement, no jealousy, and self content...and then it fades. Until the next piece begins. But sometimes the next piece doesn't begin, sometimes you're tired, sometimes you spend an entire weekend watching movies, or a month not doing anything and that's when I find all the negative emotion builds and makes it harder to get back into the work.

"I avoided the work for years, largely because I think I knew I wasn't going to be perfect and successful right off the bat, and that just made me mad at myself later for wasting time."

^
Exactly. I have that BAD. It's been the theme of my weekend even. I want to confess to some writing god: "Hey sorry, haven't really done anything for a week now. Forgive me?"

merriehaskell
May. 17th, 2010 02:21 am (UTC)
Yeah... yeah. It's like eating right and exercising, in some regards (except it doesn't shrink your bum and it doesn't usually get boring around the fourth carrot or the third mile). You feel worse when you don't do it than when you do.

I no longer allow myself time off between projects. I allow myself time to work on fun projects--unsellable projects--but I don't get to stop writing. Because it's too hard on me to start and stop. I mean, I take days off, but no more than a week. A weekend watching movies is just the right ticket sometimes.

Anyway, the flip side of the jealousy for me was the patience realization. When I realized that if there was ONE THING I could go back in time and tell myself, it would be to explain how to have patience for myself, for the career, for the writing, for the all of it.
behindpyramids
May. 17th, 2010 03:45 am (UTC)
Exactly! Exercise is the perfect analogy--I always thought once I started running I'd feel great about myself. No. Instead I just feel awful when I don't exercise.

"Because it's too hard on me to start and stop."

Yeah! Stopping is awful. It's like that first week of school after summer vacation. Everything hurts. Or again, like running after you've stopped for a week. It feels like you're back to level 1 and it's even more frustrating because a week ago you were going so smoothly.

Patience.
God. I need so much of it. Billy Joel's "Vienna" is becoming my theme song.
mrissa
May. 16th, 2010 02:46 pm (UTC)
I think jealousy is a valid stepping stone for some people. Sure.

But what I want out of this is not something other people can ever have. If I get one of the major genre awards, it will be nice vindication, but what I want is to make people think and feel about something in the way that only I can. And sometimes awards get given for that and sometimes they don't, but I never feel like you could get an award for writing a story in a way that only I could, so if you get an award for writing a story in a way that only you could, well, yay you, go friend and all that.
merriehaskell
May. 16th, 2010 03:59 pm (UTC)
Oh, I'm there with you. I have finally figured out it's NOT a zero-sum game in that regard, for the writer. And that's why I no longer seethe.

Also, most of the time I was writing this? I was pretty sure you were going to say, "Nope, not me." :)
madwriter
May. 16th, 2010 11:53 pm (UTC)
This is--put better and more concisely--pretty much on target with what I was thinking as well.

Though I'm still jealous now and again (low-grade rather than seething) about people who write fiction for a living. :)
stephanieburgis
May. 16th, 2010 03:10 pm (UTC)
I think jealousy can be really useful when it makes you realize exactly what you really want, and motivates you to do the work you need to get it. For myself, I've noticed that once I start to do that work, the jealousy immediately starts to fade away - it only hangs on while the goal is still impossible (because I haven't started working toward it).

And I love hearing good things about being an only child, since MrD might be one, and Patrick and I both come from big families. There was a huge survey done in the UK a few years ago, asking people which was better, and what came out of it was: overall, and overwhelmingly, adults with siblings think that it's better to have siblings, and adults without siblings think that it's better to be an only child. And I've found that result really reassuring.
merriehaskell
May. 16th, 2010 04:08 pm (UTC)
I've noticed that once I start to do that work, the jealousy immediately starts to fade away - it only hangs on while the goal is still impossible

Yes--a thousand times yes. Once I started doing the work, once I could start saying to myself, "Yes, I worked as hard as I could have today"--on a string of days--it became less and less and less of a problem.

There was more to it, though. I'm sure gaining success helped, too? But honestly, there was never a point where I sold a story and said, "That's it, that's done, not jealous." Hm.
merriehaskell
May. 16th, 2010 04:11 pm (UTC)
Also, re: only kids...

Well, you know? I think as a kid it's better to be an only and as an adult it's better to be a sibling. I am a little sad I don't have any brothers and sisters--now. But when I say that, someone points out to me that not all adult brothers and sisters get along, so it's not a guarantee. But you and your brothers, I am a little envious of that. (And my husband and his brothers, and my friends Dave and Lou and their siblings...) On the other hand... I have plenty of friends with terrible siblings, so who knows.
a2macgeek
May. 16th, 2010 04:19 pm (UTC)
My mom was an only child, and as an adult at least, she definitely longed for siblings. I think it might have helped when both of her parents died within a month of each other. I also suspect that's why she had three kids. She never could understand when we would fight with each other why we weren't grateful to have siblings. :)
merriehaskell
May. 16th, 2010 04:54 pm (UTC)
Sounds about right to me!
gwynnega
May. 16th, 2010 08:59 pm (UTC)
Julia Cameron calls it the "jealousy map"--that the jealousy shows you where you want to go. When you look at it that way, it can be a very instructive and constructive emotion.
merriehaskell
May. 17th, 2010 01:30 am (UTC)
Wow, that's a fantastic term!
steve_buchheit
May. 16th, 2010 10:14 pm (UTC)
Jealousy can be an extremely helpful emotion if it's put to good use. And here I will unburden myself, sometimes I find myself jealous of friends. Many of them are progressing well in their writing careers while I feel like I'm at a standstill. You are included in that group, Mer.

I think it's what you do with that jealousy that makes the difference. Some people like to suck on lemons all day. Few make lemonade. Fewer still open up a stand to sell the lemonade.

You can rationalize jealousy away in several directions, cry over spilt milk, shake your fists at an uncaring sky, weep at the feet of Fate, or pick up your flamed-out ego and quench it in the oil of hard work, tempering it against a long night, and reforge it the next day.

Or as Cpt. Kirk said in that utterly forgettable ST Movie, "I need my pain, I don't want to be cured."
merriehaskell
May. 17th, 2010 02:23 am (UTC)
Exactly--the jealousy has to be used for good, not evil.

Anyway, the only thing I'd say about progressing/not-progressing is to point out that sometimes when people appear to be at a standstill, it's right before they take off at lightning speed...

The jealousy thing, once I got around it, manifested in something else entirely. I dunno how to describe it, and maybe it's yet another kind of selfish thought, but it happened when I read Dave's book, and thought, "How cool is this going to be when he publishes this?" There's something about being extremely happy for your friends in there, once you realize that they aren't actually taking anything away from you.

Edited at 2010-05-17 02:25 am (UTC)
dsudis
May. 17th, 2010 03:22 am (UTC)
I am totally baffled by this post, so I assume that means we are both in correct working order for ourselves. :)
merriehaskell
May. 17th, 2010 12:30 pm (UTC)
Yep! And the fact that you find this post baffling actually explains you better to me.
dsudis
May. 17th, 2010 01:46 pm (UTC)
I think--to unpack slightly--my response to seeing other people do really well and be rewarded for it is to go "Crap, I am not that good. Am I ever going to be that good? Well, I'll do my own thing that doesn't compete directly with their thing. I can do my thing pretty well."

Which, er, may explain both a lot of my behavior in fandom and why it is taking me so long to try writing outside of fandom. *g*
nancyfulda
May. 18th, 2010 11:23 am (UTC)
But I like the notion that jealousy is a valid stepping stone, a visceral reaction that lets you know you are fully engaged with something. It's a helpful indicator for me, to check my path.

I'd call it more of a sign-post than a stepping-stone. Or wait, perhaps it's a cattle prod? *grin*

Very nice post.
( 26 comments — Leave a comment )

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