Delilah Dawson asked folks on Twitter how they deal with professional jealousy. Scalzi’s response was, more or less “I am a leaf on the wind,” and while being a leaf on the wind is admirable, I admit I don’t know very many folks who manage to reach that level of zen. Lilith Saintcrow, having seen the horror of the midlist herself, offered some coping strategies.
For my part, I’ve found that my professional jealousy takes the form of, “Why him and not ME?” (and yes, it’s generally a “him” but not always). The truth is that there is a lot of luck in this industry, and some of that luck has to do with who you know (including who your parents and relatives are) and whether or not certain people like you. Some of that is having the right book at the right cultural moment. All of that luck is enhanced by actually being a good writer (but I will note here that being a good writer does not preclude someone from publishing novels or getting a movie deal or selling millions. It does improve your chances, though).
That said, I’ve used, “WHY THAT FUCKER AND NOT ME?” to fuel me through this business since I was a teenager, so I’m not sure that I’m compelled to give it up any time soon. Some measure of professional jealousy can be good for you. But it can also be a lot like the snake eating its own tail, because like Alexander Hamilton, you will probably never be satisfied. Oh, you published a critically acclaimed book, but it wasn’t a bestseller? Oh, you published a bestselling book that critics thought was crap? Oh you’ve won awards but not sold millions, oh, you sold millions, but didn’t win awards? Oh, you’ve sold well but never got a movie deal. Oh, you’ve sold well and got a movie deal but the movie tanked? Oh, you sold well and got a movie deal and the movie did well but didn’t win Best Picture. Boo-hoo.
You see how your measure of “success” can keep going up and up and up until you’re just never happy, ever. My spouse often shakes his head at me because I move my bar for success all the time. What I have is never enough. For me, this works, because if I was satisfied in my professional life I wouldn’t be inspired to do anything. But for my own sanity I did have to make my own definition of success. I had to create my own career goals so that when I did turn down opportunities or choose to do one project instead of another, I would stop second-guessing myself. Staying true to that course has become increasingly difficult as lots of other stuff is thrown at me, but finding that true north makes it a lot easier to come back to it when I get distracted and ask WHY THAT DUDE AND NOT ME? cause usually the answer is “Cause your career path is different anyway. You are playing a different game.”
The times when I’m most filled with despair tend to be on social media on days when I see hordes of great deals for folks I know. While the vast majority of those are certainly deserved and make me happy, I admit I’m far happier for a midlister who hits the bestseller list than a debut who gets a seven figure deal. I’m also happier for a great writer who gets a movie deal than a shitty writer, because my god, the world is already so full of shit do I really need that shit to bleed over into film?
Yes, I’m laying down some truth there. Why pretend?
This is usually when I’ll mute people or keywords or just log off social media entirely. Surrounding yourself in the book people bubble means you’re choosing to see book people deals constantly, and it’s bound to give you a warped view of the world. We aren’t all signing big deals, and even when we are, let me tell you, on the back end there is often a lot more annoying bullshit and behind the scenes that you don’t get to see. I’ve heard from a lot of people in the field that my opinion really matters out there, and lots of folks respect me and think I’m doing aces. But every day I’m getting up and snarling into my coffee because I’m heading out to my day job and writing articles about “5 Things You Shouldn’t Wear This Summer” to ensure I can eat. Seeing a shit writer getting a seven-figure movie deal when you’re doing your timesheets can be super annoying.
But when this happens I remind myself that one of the reasons I work isn’t just to eat. If we paid off all our debt and never traveled again or went out, ever, and lived on ramen and second hand clothes permanently, sure, I could quit. But in quitting I would have to make other sacrifices. I’d have to take on writing projects far worse than “5 Things You Shouldn’t Wear This Summer,” and there would be no health insurance. My compromise is keeping the day job so I don’t have to take another writing opportunity that has my real name on it that I have to live with forever. I want to be in charge of my own career, and I can’t do that if I’m worried about money all the time.
Those are the choices I’m making. Do I wish I was selling millions NOW? Sure! Who doesn’t? But I am willing to work to get there my way.
Jealousy, then, actually serves to keep me driven and focused on the goals at hand. When all the deals become too much (SERIOUSLY HOW DOES EVERY WRITER BUT ME HAVE A TV DEAL AND DAMMIT THAT GUY IS A SHIT WRITER WHY DID THEY PAY HIM SO MUCH WHO BUYS THOSE GODDAMN BOOKS), I sit back and refocus. Their career goals aren’t mine. I’m playing a longer game, with a different end goal.
Knowing that doesn’t always make it easy, but it makes it manageable.