Are we living in the age of envy?
It used to be that we could only compare ourselves to those we knew in real life, and even then only when we saw or spoke to them. Now unfathomable amounts of information about our co-workers, friends, exes, and acquaintances are a click away. Once upon a time celebrities were remote, glamorous beings with no pretentions of being “just like us”. Now I could probably hop on Instagram and tell you what Cara Delevingne had for breakfast. Photos of Reese Witherspoon come up on my feed right in between pictures of my friends’ dogs, the spectacular bloody mary from their brunch, and stunning vistas from their hikes. Regular users of social media develop a kind of sixth sense for curating snapshots of their lives: a funny conversation overheard at the office of their cool job, a hot new novel placed next to a between a cappuccino with elaborately designed foam, held by their perfect manicure.
Pouring over these updates can be fun…or it can induce stomach-churning envy.
Last week Jilly Gagnon, writing for Elle.com, talked about exploring her feelings of jealousy after a friend of hers landed a flashy book deal. She had her own book deal, but her friend (who was a year younger than her, to add insult to injury) was already garnering praise and attention from the press. To wit, she learned of the good news via a media newsletter.
It may sound petty to feel envious under such circumstances—after all there are surely many who gladly switch places with Gagnon—but I doubt there’s an author out there who couldn’t sympathize.
Since I signed my own book deal back in October, I’ve been spending a lot of time deliberately comparing my work to that of my contemporaries. This is a necessary part of figuring out how to market my book. Determining which authors appeal to the audience you hope to reach is a solid first step to connecting with that audience. But spending so much time thinking about how your work stacks up to those you admire—sometimes even reaching out to them to ask for their support in terms of a blurb—is humbling. You look at what they have—the prime spot on the bestseller list, the movie deal with Reese Witherspoon’s production company, the prestigious awards—and wonder how you could ever live up to it. You wonder: am I really in this league?
But, as I must keep reminding myself, envy is a spectacular waste of energy better used elsewhere. And in truth, no matter how good someone appears to have it, you never know what someone else’s life is really like. Jo Piazza—a writer many are doubtlessly envying furiously right about now—wrote last week about how perfect her life probably looks on social media, and how far from reality that image really is.
It is also true that, without exception, every writer I know who has had any measure of success (and many who haven't yet) has worked hard, has persevered through rejection, and done the noble work of continuing create in the face of the world’s indifference.
When I catch myself feeling covetous of someone else’s success, I try to focus on how far I’ve come. My current success might not stack up so well to that of Cheryl Strayed or Donna Tartt, But compared to the career of Andrea Dunlop a year ago? I’m kicking ass.