On Professional Envy

brainsfirst This morning, Delilah Dawson asked a really thought-provoking question.

I think a certain amount of professional jealousy is healthy, just like a certain amount of fear is. Not the amount (or kind) of either that makes you act like an asshole, but a normal pricking of self-applied spurs, to push one to evolve. To finish more books/short stories/novellas/poems/whatevers. To hone one’s craft. To have more fun on the page.

It’s okay to feel “bad” emotions. It’s like alcohol, sex, or juggling–practiced in moderation, it’s good for you. Fear can keep you from stepping on a venomous danger noodle, and great things have been written with a gnawing sense of god DAMN it all, I’m going to show you how to REALLY DO THIS.

Fear, discomfort, professional envy, these are all part of a full emotional spectrum. You can feel however you want, and plumbing those feelings can help you write more evocatively and, incidentally, become a more compassionate person. Imagine trying to write someone who’s furiously jealous if you’ve never felt the green sting; it can help you understand, and understanding brings not only depth to your writing but kindness to your daily outlook. Now, please note that compassion is not–and should not be mistaken for–admiration or the condoning of asshole behavior, whether one’s own or anyone else’s. It is also not weakness, though people might mistake it for such, and then it’s time to have a big stick handy.

Feeling some amount of professional jealousy is normal. Accepting a certain measure of it robs the feeling of a great deal of shame, just as setting the timer and telling my kids they could swear as much as they wanted until it finished robbed cursing of a large measure of its “forbidden fruit” draw. Certainly you can set a timer and wallow in jealousy, too. (It might even be therapeutic, as long as one gets back to work afterward.) I think a lot of writers have the idea they’re not supposed to feel envious at all, which loads the emotion with all sorts of shame-weight and drags you down.

So how do you tell how much is healthy, and how much is toxic? Two simple metrics:

1. Are you using it as an excuse to act like an asshole?
2. Are you using it as an excuse not to write or finish your works?

IF the answer to either is “yes”, back up. Take a deep breath. Of the two, #1 is the most short-term critical, because one moment of nastiness can–and will–be dragged behind your name in publishing like an anchor, lo, yea, until the end of times. Other people have written at length about how to know if you’re acting like an asshole, so I won’t add more here.

#2 is the more insidious, and the one that you can mistake for actual effort. There are millions of excuses not to write, and the deep cultural narrative we have of the “tortured creative” actively helps to feed them and make them monstrous. I, too, have felt the seductive call of “my career is crap because it’s not as ‘successful’ as someone else’s, therefore I will watch YouTube videos instead of writing.” This is where the habit of regular writing is crucial. The discipline–ideally, or writing every day, even if only for ten minutes–will do more to get you over that hump than any amount of short-term effort.

Humans don’t like uncomfortable feelings. They’re, well, uncomfortable. Frantically shaming yourself and spending a lot of mental and emotional effort pushing those feelings away easily becomes counterproductive. Drawing their venom by letting them be what they are and continuing with the work anyway is a path of, if not less resistance, certainly more wordcount.

Over and out.