October 12, 2021

Professional Jealousy

A black pug looks longingly at a cream pie on a table.
But I want it. (Charles Deluvio via Unsplash)

I spent my 20s working first in marketing for a company that archived newspapers, then as an editor at a taekwondo magazine, and then a copy editor at a marketing agency. All I wanted to do was write. I’d read websites like Slate and Gawker from my desk, eagerly following the careers of all the people my age who were already selling books and writing articles and going to media parties. 

I eventually began working at a love and relationships website as the social media manager and eventually got a job as an editor of a vertical. But I was the only employee not located in New York City. They’d have happy hours and parties and it all seemed so wonderful. Sometimes, I’d go get drinks at a place called the Chromehorse, where some guy who called himself Papa Smurf would hit on me and my friends. But normally, it was just takeout pizza at home with my husband, silently watching Star Trek reruns. One year, in December, they flew me out and I got to work from the office and go to the holiday party. I was six months pregnant. I spent the party talking and sipping my Diet Coke, wishing the whole time I was someone else. Anyone else.

I’ve been jealous for so long. Jealous of the people who had nicer husbands. Supportive partners. Jealous of people who had bigger and better careers. Who waited longer to have kids. Who could move out of the state and take jobs. Who seemed to be able to write about anything and everything to much acclaim. The people who had parents who encouraged them not to get married. The ones with parents and teachers who told them to follow their dreams and not to settle. The ones with families who helped them with college applications and later as they started out on lives in cities so far away from where I lived. People who published essays, while mine were rejected. People who published books while mine languished.

I could write 2,000 words about how long it took me to write stories that I was proud of and that editors paid attention to. And even more about how long it took me to write a book and then another and then another, all the while, barely paying bills and how it blew my entire life apart.

But before then, I remember telling another writer how jealous I was. How angry it made me. How in my mind, I’d pick apart other people’s words and careers convinced they weren’t more deserving than me. And she told me to keep my eyes on my page. “Jealousy is only good if it keeps you moving,” she said. “It’s bad when it holds you back. Sure, life isn’t fair but you can’t be jealous of opportunities you didn’t reach for and paths you didn’t take.”

She also pointed out that for all the writing I did on social media, I could have written at least two books. And she told me that I can only compare myself to people like me. How could I be jealous of others who were different? 

It wasn’t until I had kids and I was so tired and weighed down that I understood the wisdom of her advice: Jealousy is normal. It’s normal to want things you don’t have. But let jealousy keep you motivated, but not bitter. 

I began reading stories about women who were writers and had children, and men too. And if reading the websites of the early 2000s, showed me all the life that I was missing out on. The tales of other writers, the ones with lives and crooked career paths, showed me what I could still attain. George Saunders. Madeleine L’Engle. George Elliot. Toni Morrison. My friend Laura Lippman. I read about how Barbara Kingsolver wrote The Bean Trees, while her daughter was a baby inbetween midnight feedings.  It wasn’t all media happy hours and love affairs with poets. These successes were forged while writing on napkins in the school pick-up line, and on their phone in parks, or in the office closet late a night. Success that only came in their 40s or 50s. Those were the stories that I held on to. 

The year my jealousy stopped consuming me was the year I got divorced. Finally, finally, I felt free to do what I had always wanted to do. I could pitch and write stories I knew would make my ex mad. The nights he had the kids, I went to happy hours with friends and started doing stand-up. I stopped wishing all those other lives were mine and I made a life of my own. 

I still have professional jealousy. I see people get jobs and awards and fellowships, and every time I get jealous, I have to remind myself: I didn’t apply for those jobs, or awards, or fellowships. I especially get envious when I see other people write about topics that are similar to what I write about. Which is silly. No one owns a topic. No one owns a subject. Rather, we are all just small tributaries contributing to a larger ocean. And one person’s success doesn’t diminish mine. In fact, it just rises the tide of all of our voices.

I guess what I am saying is that life is long and complicated and full of so much grace. Recently, someone I’ve long admired said my life seemed glamorous and I realized maybe she was jealous of me too. And maybe, maybe we spend so much time angry and wishing for the lives we wished we had, we fail to live our own.