Artwork donated by Pati Nagle.
The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Surviving Someone Else’s Jealousy
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
About five minutes after I posted last week’s section on professional jealousy, I got back-to-back e-mails from regular readers of the Guide, asking me how to deal with being a victim of professional jealousy. Both letters had poignant stories of betrayal and utter nastiness on the part of the jealous person, and sadly, both emails were familiar because I’ve been through that, and worse.
I got more e-mails like that throughout the week, as well as some good comments in the comments section. (Check that out when you look up the link.) On Twitter, someone asked me if jealousy was wrong, but envy was okay because envy wasn’t as personal. That tinged me a bit, but I wasn’t sure why, so I asked him to explain (he did, kinda, but honestly, it’s hard in 140 characters).
He was wrestling with the idea that sometimes someone else’s success spurs you on. Sometimes it’s because that other person seems like a regular person to you (not a Writer or a Superstar, but a wannabe made good), and that serves as inspiration. And I have to admit, I’ve experienced that. I’ve looked at someone else’s success as inspiration, partly because I believed I was as good at the chosen task or better than that other person.
The difference has always been that the other person tried to succeed in their chosen field, and I hadn’t. That other person led me to try when I hadn’t had the courage to try before. I still think envy is the wrong word here—and I’ll expand on that in a moment—but I have a few other points to make first.
A few people wrote on their blogs that envy is necessary. One person told me that jealousy is hard-wired and we shouldn’t fight it, and I should (basically) stop telling people to avoid it.
He needed to read the post again. I recognized that we’ll all feel jealous. We just need to put that jealousy to use—and the use should not be tearing the object of our jealousy down.
But to the handful of people who flatly said in their blogs or in response to other people’s blogs and tweets about my post that jealousy is necessary and that we need to tear down others to build ourselves up, let me say directly: you folks have a serious problem. You need to solve it or it will eat you alive. It’s not okay to destroy others in order to succeed.
Oh, you might have some success for a while, but it won’t last. And when it ends, you’ll be stunned at the amount of hatred that comes your way—hatred that you’ve earned by destroying (or trying to destroy) the people around you.
I’m going to talk about being on the receiving end of that nastiness in a moment. But first, let’s talk about the inspiration thing, because it’s subtle and difficult.
I think all of us have looked at someone who has achieved success and said, “If you can do that, I can do that.” Which is, I think, a healthy reaction if kept private. It’s also healthy if you use that person as inspiration.
I do this all the time with exercise. If you read my recommended reading lists, you know that I read Runner’s World, and in every issue, Runner’s World has inspirational stories of people who’ve overcome great odds to run a marathon or even a 5K. Some of these people have suffered horrible trauma. Others have prosthetics. One recent article was about a blind woman who ran races.
I look at the folks overcoming illness like cancer who run every day, and I think, if they can run while having chemo and weakness and tremors and surgery, I can run with a headache or when I’m feeling a little cranky or when it’s raining. I’m not trying to tear them down. I’m using them to inspire me.
I think that’s what a lot of you envy folks meant. I think you’re talking about looking at someone who shouldn’t be successful in their chosen field and yet who is, and examining what it is that person has done that you haven’t done.
That’s not envy. That’s inspiration. And yes, I agree. It’s a good thing.
It’s sometimes hard to separate out from the negative emotion. Because that inspiration might have started after a burst of jealousy. Again, see last week’s post about how to turn jealousy around. The key question is: What is that person doing that I’m not doing? And if your answer is always negative—that person is pandering; that person has no talent, just luck; that person bribed her way into that position—then you’re jealous. But if you can find what that person has done right, you’ve found the way from jealousy to inspiration.
When I was twenty and still in college, I met a man who wrote part-time for the same organization I wrote for. He was also a nonfiction freelancer. He paid for his apartment, his food, his car, and his clothing out of his nonfiction income. I saw his product at work. He had a great voice and a lot of talent, but he couldn’t spell his own name and his manuscripts were almost unreadably sloppy.
I figured if he could succeed in the cutthroat nonfiction world with those messy manuscripts, then I could with my clean manuscripts. I wasn’t the wordsmith he was, but I was more professional.
My analysis of his work got me started. I wrote for some of the same places he did, and began to wonder how he funded his lifestyle. I wasn’t getting paid enough per article to pay for my apartment and my expenses. Eventually, I moved to larger and larger publications, publications that paid me a month’s worth of expenses per article. It wasn’t until later that I found out that he had supplemented his income writing term papers for students, and (ahem) dealing cocaine. (It was 1980, after all.)
I didn’t take the negative view—that you can never make a living at writing; that you need to deal drugs to make any money at all. Instead, I saw that he was succeeding as a freelancer, getting work published even when he wasn’t trying hard. And that inspired me even more.
Because I hadn’t been trying at all.
I had misunderstood how he made the bulk of his income, but my misunderstanding had gotten me off my butt and into my first writing career. And I am very grateful for that.
So yes, use others as inspiration, but don’t envy them. Don’t tear them down, and don’t belittle them or their accomplishments.
It will do neither of you any good.
Every year, Dean and I do a short weekend workshop on becoming a fulltime professional writer. We do it for very little money, but we do it because we have knowledge that needs to be shared with the folks out there from two successful writers, not burned out and bitter ones. (This year, we’ll do a two-hour version at Radcon in Washington State in February, and another in September in Oregon.)
One thing we always, always talk about is this: when you achieve your dream, when you start having success in your chosen field, you will lose friends.
What causes the loss? Jealousy, bitterness and anger on the friend’s part. These people can’t be happy for you and your success. Instead, they’re upset that they haven’t achieved the same level of success at the same time.
(You could see just this very scenario brewing on American Idol last week; two friends auditioned together and only one made it through. The judges kept admonishing the girl who didn’t make it to support her friend, but it was very clear she wouldn’t and the friendship was in for rocky times—if not complete collapse. Look at the footage here.)
It’s especially bad for couples. We advise couples who are in the same field to prepare for this long before it happens. Because you’ll never have the same degree of success. Someone will always be better off, and that success will go back and forth (provided you’re both working to succeed; if only one person works, then only one person will succeed). You have to prepare for that or your relationship will end.
You can prepare for the different degrees of success by talking about all aspects of it, including the pie-in-the-sky aspect—the dream of dreams. What happens if one of you achieves that and the other doesn’t? If you’ve talked about it, you have probably worked out the worst of the problems in advance.
If you think there won’t be any problems or if you think you’ll deal with it if (when) the time comes, you’re in for a heap of trouble.
Once we’ve warned people that this possibility exists, they do go home and talk to their spouses, their family, and their close friends. That should cover the problem areas, right?
Oh, no. Because you never know where this toxic jealousy will come from.
Let me give you a few personal examples.
1. I interviewed for a prestigious job at the request of the business owner. He interviewed two other people as well. One of those people, a man who had been in the field for thirty years at that point, came away from the interview telling all his friends that he had nailed it, and that he would have the job. The business owner told me (in my interview!) how badly the other man had blown the interview, telling the business owner how his business sucked and how only the other man could save it. (Ooops. Don’t ever do that, folks.)
Anyway, a month later, when the announcement came that I—a relative newcomer—had gotten the job, the other interviewee was shocked. Then mortified. And then he proceeded to do everything he could to trash me and my work for the entire time I held that job. He actively hatefully and spitefully badmouthed me to everyone in our mutual business.
I was appalled. I’d only met him once or twice casually and the things he said about me were among the worst things anyone had ever said about me in my life. I didn’t know what to do, so I consulted some longtime friends, who told me not to do anything.
One of those friends is known for suing people. I was stunned to get that advice from that person.
But my friend turned out to be right.
Because here’s the thing: In that other interviewee’s thirty-year career, he had done this countless times before. He had actively destroyed the careers of others—successfully, in his early years—and unsuccessfully later on. Why wasn’t he successful later on? Because he became known as a spiteful, mean-spirited man who deliberately badmouthed anyone who was more successful than he was. And as time went on, that became most everyone else. He stalled his once-promising career with his nasty mouth.
2. When I quit editing the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, I had a terrible year in public. Because I was no longer perceived to be in a position of power, people felt they could tell me exactly what they thought of me to my face with no reprisals.
Mostly, people made snide comments on panels. But on one particularly memorable afternoon, a woman came up to me after a panel and screamed at me for ten minutes, calling me every single name in the book. I figured it had something to do with my editing. Nope. Turns out she believed she was a better writer than I was, and she deserved “fame” more than I did.
Finally one of the convention security people pulled her out of the room. My other panelists were shaken. I was surprised that the screaming had nothing to do with my editorship (as it had other times, mostly because I rejected someone’s story), but with my writing.
I had never met this woman before, although I’ve seen her since. (She’s still unpublished, by the way.) She hates me for my success. I avoid her…for obvious reasons.
With the rise of the internet, you get to see more and more of this bile. Once you have name recognition, people will hate you for something they perceive that you’ve done. Not necessarily something you’ve done at all. And you will never have met this person (nor will you ever want to).
It’s, sadly, one of the prices you pay for success. People will have opinions about you. And sometimes, those opinions are rooted in jealousy.
Honestly, all of these things and the hundred or so more examples that I have (I am not exaggerating) are relatively easy to deal with. They’re expected. If you follow the careers of successful people, you know that they deal with stalkers, the unhinged, and the unbelievably jealous. You will get that, even on a local level, especially in a small town (a friend of mine is dealing with that at the moment; her business is successful and a former friend of hers is going bankrupt. He’s attacking her in public because he can’t look at her success without seeing his own failure).
All of that is occasionally frightening, often worrisome, and sometimes laughable (another friend of mine overheard himself being described as the floating turd of literature—no matter how many times he got flushed, he still rose to the surface—and he thought that the funniest thing he’d ever heard. I’ve heard a few gems like that about myself, although none quite as colorful). But none of it is as painful as the loss of a friend to jealousy.
The worst case that I can write about publicly without revealing any identities except my own happened in my last year editing F&SF and in the first two years after that. My writing career was really taking off. Dean and I were both making a great deal of money writing and we were being published everywhere.
I had to quit F&SF because I no longer had time to do the work. I needed to spend 24/7 on writing. I had to choose between the two careers—editing and writing—and I chose writing.
I was clear about that with my friends and with the field. When I gave my notice to the publisher, I told him that argument and an increase in salary wouldn’t help. I made nearly 10 times more as a writer than I was editing, but I spent 30 hours of my 40 hour weeks editing. It was no longer cost effective for me to edit, and he couldn’t pay me enough to keep me.
Around that point, six months before my last issue as editor appeared, rumors started about me in New York. I was unreliable. I was crazy. I was impossible to work with. At the same time, casual acquaintances called me to ask about my health or some personal problems that I had confided with only a few very close friends. These acquaintances were concerned for me, and they were kind enough to tell me who had told them of my personal problems. They also added that they didn’t think that person was my friend, because that person also started the rumors that were spread around New York.
I had worked in the field long enough that I’d worked with a lot of people in the business. They knew the rumors weren’t true. But they were worried that I’d be damaged anyway, particularly since the rumors came from my hometown. They were afraid that others would think the “friend” was in the position to know.
I gathered information including e-mails and letters. Then I talked to my so-called friend, who told me that I had become too big for my britches (seriously! He used that cliché) and I needed to be taken down a peg. He felt he had to do it for my own good.
Needless to say, that was our last conversation. Ever. I was heartbroken. I had liked and trusted this person, and believed us to be very good friends. He had spent three years of our ten-year friendship quietly trying to destroy my reputation.
Why? Because when we met, he was more successful than I was. With several short story sales and one novel sale, he was the expert on publishing. I surpassed him, selling eight novels in one year while editing, and then I won awards. He continued to write, but at his slower pace. And he apparently couldn’t deal with my success.
I needed to be taken down a peg.
He was doing it for my own good.
All he managed to do was destroy a friendship and harm his own career. People who had worked with me, people to whom he had badmouthed me, told me years later that from that moment forward, they considered him untrustworthy. They decided they’d do business with him only when he had something so good that it was worth suffering his destructive personality.
To date, most of these people have never ever worked with him—and probably will not.
I’m not the only person he has done this to. His behavior hasn’t changed over the years. Recently, he did this to an entire science fiction convention because he didn’t like its chairman.
As far as I’m concerned, this is the behavior of someone who has gone off the rails. But he continues to function in the real world, making a small living and paying his bills. But that promise of success he had back in the late 1980s? It’s gone now—primarily because he has put more energy into destroying others for the past twenty years than he has in improving his craft.
So, how do you handle all of this?
Oh, jeez. If only I had a simple solution for you.
But I’ll give you what I know.
If the jealousy is minor or distant, as in those first two instances I described:
1. Have a sense of humor. You could get mad at being described as a floating turd, but really, seriously, that’s just wasting energy. Have a good belly laugh at the stupidity of the commentator whom you don’t know and probably will never meet and move on.
2. Have a good attitude. It’s about them, not you. They just happened to choose you that day to be the target of their own self-loathing. As long as you remember that, you’ll be fine.
3. Have someone else read your hate mail. I stopped having Dean do it when I became editor of F&SF because he got angrier than I did. Then I realized that I would’ve gotten angry if someone had described my husband the way people were describing me. So I had my assistant open the hate mail. However—here’s a key point—keep that hate mail. You might need it if things escalate.
4. Don’t engage. Don’t answer the hate mail. Don’t write a comment on the stupid person’s blog. Don’t tweet about it. Don’t give this person the attention he so obviously craves. And don’t let him know that he’s gotten to you (if, indeed, he has). Just make a note of his name, add it to your nutball file, and move on.
As a sidebar, the more successful you get the more you’ll need a nutball file and a hate mail file. Keep the stuff, but don’t focus on it. I’ve never had to use mine for anything, but a friend who ended up with a stalker used his to show that how the stalker escalated the horrid behavior over time.
And if you don’t think jealous people and stalkers have anything in common, then you’re quite naïve. Sadly.
5. Move on. You can’t do anything about these people. They exist, they have troubled lives, they’re probably miserable. Don’t let them make you miserable. Enjoy your life and invest no energy in them. None. Take your hands off the keyboard. Now….
If you’re suffering from attack from someone you know, someone who is jealous of your success, then you might have to take some serious action.
First you need to protect your heart. Most often—unfortunately—the people who start these attacks are (were) friends. Or you thought they were friends.
I’ve only had one friend acknowledge jealousy and get help to overcome it. That friend said some pretty awful things for a while, didn’t like the person she’d become, apologized, and then became a true friend.
But out of the dozens of incidences I’ve gone through since I’ve had some success, I’ve only had one friend remain a friend after all of that bile. (And hers wasn’t very bad, on the scale of nastiness).
So take my experience as a cautionary tale. You will lose friends as you become successful. You might not get them back. And that’ll be on them, not on you.
Here’s what you do when someone you know actively tries to demolish your success.
1. Discuss the problem with them, sometimes using a mediator. Not another friend, but a therapist or some kind of helping professional (minister, rabbi, counselor). Sometimes people don’t realize how toxic they’re being. They might quit. Chances are they won’t. But they might. Give your friend the chance to step back from her behavior and apologize.
2. If the friend continues to attack, walk away. Don’t actively end the friendship. Just stop calling, stop socializing, and stop interacting. If the friend then asks why you’ve left, you can tell him about how uncomfortable his behavior has made you.
Most of the time, these people don’t ask. Your presence inflames their jealousy. They see you and your success, and it angers them because they haven’t got that success (usually they haven’t worked for it and don’t want to work for it). So they attack you. If you’re not there, they’ll find a new target. And they’ll be more comfortable with you gone.
3. Take legal action. I’ve had a few people actively try to destroy one of my many careers. One person was so active in his attempt to destroy me that a high-powered attorney friend begged me to let him file several lawsuits—one for restraint of trade, one for libel, and a couple others that I no longer remember. Since I didn’t want to pursue that career, I didn’t want to pursue lawsuits either. But had I stayed in that career, I would have had to defend my career and my reputation in court.
Remember that lawsuits take years and can be as or more toxic than the behavior that starts the suit. Don’t go to the legal option lightly. It will take over your life—and who wants to spend years on that kind of unpleasantness?
Number 2 is your very best option. Walk away. Don’t engage.
It’s also the hardest option, because you want to fight back. The worst thing you can do is retaliate. Suddenly you’re on par with the jealous person and you’re giving them more ammunition.
I have not engaged in dozens of these things, and eventually the jealous person gives up. They move on to new targets or they quietly slink into the background. Let them.
It’s hard. It’s very hard. As I wrote this section tonight, I walked away from the computer four separate times. I had chocolate. I ordered some books. Then I ordered some music. I watched news. I had to force myself to come back.
I’m still furious at some of these people, particularly the ones I can’t mention here because you’ll know who they are. With the exception of the person I mentioned during my F&SF days, I’ve left out most of the people who’ve tried to hurt me since my writing became well known.
Did they hurt me? Not the people I didn’t know. I find them amusing. But my former friends? Oh, yes. I feel betrayed and sad. I still want to retaliate. I want to write a long essay about each and every one of them, by name, telling you how awful they are.
But I won’t. Probably not ever.
I have learned that dealing with other people’s jealousy is one of the downsides to success. So I breathe. I take long walks. I throw rocks in the garden. But I never, ever engage.
Because that way lies madness.
So to answer all those questions about what you do? Be sad. Be angry. Take care of yourself. And move on.
That’s all you can do.
“Freelancer Writer’s Survival Guide: Surviving Someone Else’s Jealousy” copyright 2010 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.