How can I manage professional jealousy?

When you are a business of one, it’s easy to compare your success with friends, or even complete strangers online. In this column, Sian explains how to control professional jealousy.

Q: I’ve been struggling with my freelance writing career lately, but at the same time my friend’s writing career has gone from strength to strength. I really want to be happy for her, but the truth is, I’m jealous. I’ve worked so hard and I wish I was having the same success. How do I deal with my jealousy?

Sian says: Everyone at some point in their professional lives has to deal with a case of the green-eyed monster. It’s a hugely complicated emotion to deal with because it presents itself as feelings about someone else. In reality, it’s about us.

For creative freelancers the results of someone else’s success are often right there in front of us, plastered over social media: book cover reveals, features in magazines, partnerships with brands you want to work with. It’s hard not to feel a twinge when your peers get nominated for awards, get offered six-figure book deals, or have a cover story in your favourite magazine after your last three pitches to the same editor landed flat.

I have been jealous for all these reasons.

Sian Meades-Williams

Is it wrong to envy your friends?

It’s entirely possible to be jealous of your friends, even though it’s the last thing you want. This is particularly difficult because you know that they’re deserving of their success and you want good things for them. But well… why wasn’t it you?

When these feelings sneak up on you, dig a little bit deeper. What is it about this particular success that’s triggered your negative feelings? Why did this latest commission touch a nerve? I assure you, it’s not because you’re a bad friend. Is it something you’d also pitched for? Did you think you deserved it more? Or are you struggling more with the idea that you’re being overlooked?

My own feelings of insecurity come from wanting validation – something that freelancers don’t always get from clients. It’s not that I need the cover story, or the book deal (although both would be nice). What I really want, where my emotions really stem from, is for someone to reassure me that the work I do matters.

It’s really nice to be seen.

For you, it might be the security. Going green-eyed when someone bags a lucrative project isn’t necessarily about the work. Sometimes it’s genuinely about the money. And this is OK to admit! Don’t forget, we work in a society that equates money with value and talent: it’s hard not to think that someone’s work is better, more valuable, if they’re being paid thousands while you’re working for buttons. Deep down we know this isn’t true. But jealousy doesn’t play nicely with logic and reason.

Turning jealousy into productivity

Use those feelings to your advantage

Many freelancers, especially those who have made the jump from a full-time job to self-employment, still look for linear markers of success. So it’s easy to compare ourselves to peers who are the same age, who started their freelance careers around the same time, who work in similar fields.

But the whole point of being freelance is that we get to follow our own paths. Those paths might cross, or even meet occasionally, but I’m certain that while your friend was striving for one thing, you were working hard on something else. Our priorities are different. But knowing what pushes your jealousy buttons can be really useful in reassessing them. You weren’t ready. Perhaps you are now.

Playwright Tristan Bernays agrees that your less-positive emotions can be a useful thing to tap into. “Professional jealousy can be constructive – it gives you goals and aims, it spurns you on to greater things. It can be a useful fuel.” Listen to that voice that says ‘I wish I had that’ and then make that opportunity happen. Pitch that editor. Finish your novel. Apply for that writer’s residency. We don’t get lucky as often as people would like to believe. We make our own luck and it’s hard work.

Your friend is doing that work and it’s important to recognise when your jealousy tips over into something unhealthy. Your pal has done nothing wrong in being successful. They’re just focusing on their priorities. They’re putting themselves forward for opportunities. Even people you don’t much like are deserving of their success. Everyone is just trying their best and doing what’s right for them and their career.

Their success doesn’t take away from your achievements

Whatever your feelings, no one should ever apologise for their success. Someone wise told me once to “watch your own horse”. No one gets anywhere by worrying about what other people are up to. The object of your frustrations hasn’t even noticed because they’re busy getting on with their lives.

It’s entirely your own time you’re wasting – time that could be used to focus on your own work. “There are dozens of reasons someone else is doing better which are out of your control,” says Bernays. “Bide your time and keep doing the work. Good work shines through in the end.”

It’s OK to admit that you’re jealous of someone’s success, but save the outpouring of your feelings for WhatsApp. Jealousy is an emotion that leaves its stink on everything. You don’t want people to remember you for anything other than your talent.