Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Professional Jealousy

Freelancer's Survival Guide On Writing

The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Professional Jealousy

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Over the past 43 weeks, I’ve asked you all if you had a topic you wanted me to cover.  Some of your requests sped up my timetable on topics—which is why I covered vacations so early in the Guide—and a few of you requested refinements to topics I was covering, which led to parts 2 or 5 or 6.

Only once did I get a request that I wasn’t sure I’d write about.  And that was on professional jealousy.

I wrote back to the woman who made the suggestion and said I wasn’t sure I had anything useful to say on the subject.  But I did put it on my subject list, and surprise, surprise (at least to me) the topic has risen to the forefront of my brain.

One reason, I think, is the entertainment news:  I’ve been following the Leno/Conan thing with rather too much interest.  I like to tell myself it’s because I’m curious about the contracts and the negotiations—and I am—but I also think there’s a bit of gossip girl train wreck watching going on as well.  I predicted Conan’s failure in the 11:30 slot to anyone who would listen, but I had no opinion on Leno’s move to 10 p.m. except a slight feeling of disappointment, since I like scripted material.

Other than that, I have no personal involvement.  I am watching the negotiations, and honestly, I think Conan is one of the best negotiators in the biz.  He got The Tonight Show on a negotiation several years ago when Leno wasn’t even considering retiring, and now Conan’s done what I’ve told you all to do in negotiation if you can: he’s holding firm to his position.  If he doesn’t get what he wants, he’ll walk.  (If you’re following this, you might want to do it with my points on negotiation in front of you —note who delivered Conan’s demands to NBC? It wasn’t his people.  Oh, they might have sent it.  But he’s the one who handwrote it, so everyone knew this was him talking and not his representatives.  Savvy, savvy stuff.)

Anyway, I was trolling through future Guide topics yesterday as the Leno/Conan thing continued to implode all over the media, and I realized that professional jealousy may have had something to do with this whole mess.  Leno got The Tonight Show after Carson retired.  Conan wanted the berth, and realized he probably wouldn’t get it, since he and Leno are closer in age than, say, Leno and Carson.  So Conan, who had a successful talk show at 12:30, looked at The Tonight Show and made a play for it.

Which is now biting him in the ass.

Do I know that professional jealousy was involved? No.  I’m not that into the gossip rags.  But I have a hunch.  So let’s talk professional jealousy and its uses, if any.

First, let me be clear about the reasons I initially declined to cover this topic.  I think jealousy is one of the most destructive emotions in the world.  I think you can attribute more horrible things to jealousy than you can to most other emotions, including anger. I see nothing positive about jealousy. I’ve watched it ruin friendships, marriages, and professional relationships. I’ve watched it destroy careers.  I know of cases where jealousy has led to actual physical harm, including murder.

I also know that certain schools of thought encourage jealousy in professional situations, thinking that jealousy makes someone more ambitious or more effective.  I know of a few university programs—including a few in law and medicine—that thrive on pitting the students against each other, inflaming jealous reactions in the hopes of making the students rise higher.

I can’t think of any process more dysfunctional than that.


Jealousy happens.  For some people, especially the insecure, jealousy happens a lot.  They have developed a jealous mindset, one that minimizes their responsibility in any situation.  People who can’t take responsibility for their own mistakes and shortcomings are often among the most jealous people we all know.

But, like all emotions, jealousy strikes every single one of us from the most controlled to the most emotionally secure.  It surprises us, overtakes us, and makes us petty.

And it can, if it goes unchecked, become the most destructive thing in our life.

So how do we avoid being jealous?  We can’t, not really.  But we can avoid letting it take over our lives.

First we need to know what it is that’s making us jealous.  Is it a friend’s natural beauty? Is it someone else’s excellent relationship? Has someone else “taken” the person that we love?

All of those are personal jealousies, ones that we’re familiar with. But professional jealousy happens as well—someone else has a better timeslot or a more prestigious gig; they have more customers; they’re New York Times bestsellers; their business constantly makes money; they have better offices…on and on and on.

But jealousy isn’t about “them.” It’s about you.  What you want. What you’re missing.  And it’s also about your attitude.

We’ll get to the attitude in a minute.  You can find the key to what you want and what you’re missing once you figure out what’s making you jealous.  You might think you’re jealous of your friend’s lovely store, when really, you’re jealous of your friend’s thriving business—the one that allowed her to remodel her store in such a gorgeous fashion.

Figure out what it is that you are truly jealous of and you have the key to your own heart.

Then, figure out how the person you’re jealous of got that thing that makes you jealous.  Here are the unacceptable answers in this category: Oh, she’s more talented than I am. Oh, she’s prettier than I am. Oh, she’s luckier than I am. Oh, she’s more devious than I am.

Those comparisons do no one any good.  You have to step out of your emotional framework which is (sorry) I want what you have and I can’t have it. Waaa! and become a full fledged professional.  You have to calm down and look at the other person’s situation dispassionately.

Did your friend get her lovely store (and the money to remodel it) from hard work? Did she have an inheritance? Did she overspend?  What is she doing that you’re not doing?

You need to see the reality of the situation before you can go any farther in your analysis.  It might look like your friend’s lovely store is successful, but in reality, she spent too much money and she may hasten the store’s decline.  A truly jealous person would think that’s just desserts, but that’s taking the wrong lesson from someone else’s mistake.

The lesson you should take from that is to spend within your means.

If someone truly has achieved success, and you have not, then you have to analyze what that person did right.  You have to be fair and open-minded about it.

A dear friend of mine can talk his way into any circumstance.  He says he’s the luckiest person in the world because he creates his own luck—and he does.  He comes up with ideas, approaches people with a full-fledged business plan, and convinces them to let him do the bulk of the work for a hefty fee.

I’m not really the jealous type—I can count the number of times I’ve been jealous on one hand—but I am insecure.  And his aggressive business practices made me feel extremely inadequate for years.  I didn’t do those things, and my career went in a different direction because of it.

Only when I reached my thirties did I realize that I didn’t want to have his kind of career.  Being aggressive is difficult for me and—here’s the key part—when I am aggressive, I don’t value the result.  I want to get jobs or work based on merit, not on my ability to talk my way into a situation.

With that realization came another: if my friend’s work lacked merit, it didn’t matter how aggressive he was; no one would have hired him.  If I were a different person, that realization would have allowed me to become more aggressive in my business dealings.  But I am who I am.  I like my career as it is, and I have trouble tooting my own horn (as my mother would have said).  I do as much as I need to and no more.

All of those realizations have been important to my career.  I realized I don’t have to be uncomfortable to be successful.  I also realized I can define success on my own terms.

But I wouldn’t have been able to do that without my own discomfort at my friend’s highly successful methods.

Fair and open-minded is the key.  If you can’t be open-minded about someone else’s success, then you need help.  Usually the help is minor—you can ask for help assessing what the successful person did right.

For example, when Dean and I teach professional writers who have stalled in their careers, we often run into professional jealousy.  Not against us (although, believe me, we’ve been victims of other people’s jealousy in the past), but against New York Times bestsellers.

My favorite comment—and I hear it each workshop—is this one:  “I don’t read Stephen King (or Nora Roberts or Clive Cussler or J.K. Rowling) because they write crap.”

“How do you know they write crap if you don’t read them?” I’ll ask.

“Because they’re on the bestseller list,” comes the response.

This, usually, from someone who wants a successful writing career—one they often define as being on the bestseller list.

Sometimes this prejudice against bestselling authors comes from a writer’s schooling. (I’ve written about this in a variety of places and ways: start with “Barbarian Confessions.”  Dean also writes about it on his blog)  Often, though, this prejudice against bestsellers from someone who wants to be one is pure professional jealousy.

My job as a teacher, then, is to break down the jealous response, force the writer to look at the bestseller’s work and see what that bestseller is doing right.  One-time bestsellers, people who only have one book on the list and never repeat, may be accidental bestsellers, because of marketing, timing, or the popularity of the topic. But repeat bestsellers are on the bestseller list because readers like their work. And for writers, the only way to measure success is in how many readers like our work.

There are a lot of writers on the bestseller list whose work I don’t like. That’s personal taste.  But if you ask me what they’re doing right, I can tell you.  And I’ll be honest here: I won’t say they’re on the list because they’re lucky or they got a good advertising budget or because readers are stupid.  Chances are writers are on the list because they tell stories that readers want to read.

If I can’t figure out what makes a bestseller work, then I ask the fans of that writer.  Fans will always tell you what they like about a book, with great enthusiasm and a desire to share.

Asking what successful people are doing right, asking not the successful person, but their fans or readers or clients, is the best way you can understand what’s working.

If you do all that, and you still have trouble understanding why that person is successful—(yeah, they sure duped a lot of people), then the problem is deeper.  You have other, personal issues that are causing the jealousy.  You’ll need to get professional help resolving the negative emotion.

Because jealousy will eat you alive.

Let me say from experience that it’s unpleasant in the extreme to be on the other side of someone else’s jealousy.  I used the phrase “victims of someone’s jealousy” on purpose, above.  Because jealousy is irrational and harmful and—to the object of the jealousy—something that seems to come out of the blue.

Often the jealous person does everything she can to tear down the person she’s jealous of.  And if the jealous person simply puts all her energy into her own life and her own career instead of going after someone’s livelihood and career, she’d be a lot more successful.

Jealousy is a warning sign that something is seriously wrong in your own life.  You can’t change the person you’re jealous of.  You can learn from them.  You can try to understand them.

In other words, you can focus on improving yourself.

If you take responsibility for your own situation, your jealousy will decrease—maybe even go away.

When you’re feeling jealous of someone else, realize that you’re experiencing one of the most destructive emotions humans have.  You need to resolve that jealousy.

You need to resolve it.  You need to step beyond it, learn from it, and improve your own life.

Never use professional jealousy to tear down someone else.

Or you might end up in the kind of mess NBC is in at the moment.  If Conan O’Brien had seen how successful he really was back in 2004 when he negotiated the disastrous contract that started this mess, he wouldn’t be about to lose his dream right now.  If he had waited until Leno retired, he might have gotten offered the gig.

Or he might have realized, like I did with my friend, that he was already doing what he did best.

You can’t live someone else’s life.   You can’t have someone else’s career. You’ll only have yours, and it will never be exactly what you expect or even dreamed of.

Learn to accept where you’re at.  If you’re not happy there, figure out how you have to change to improve your situation.  Not what others need to do for you or how others have cheated you.  Figure out what you can do.

Take responsibility, and you will have fewer moments of jealousy.

I promise.

“Freelancer Writer’s Survival Guide: Professional Jealousy” copyright 2010 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

You can now order either an e-book copy of the Guide or a trade paper copy of the Guide. It’s in slightly different format and has been organized, so that related topics are in an easily accessible place.

You can get the print version here.

For those of you who’d like to buy an ebook, here’s the Amazon link as well as the Barnes & Noble link. The e-book will also be available on all the other e-book sites. If you want it in your favorite format, and the book hasn’t yet been uploaded to your favorite site, try Smashwords. You’ll be able to download in a variety of e-book formats.

25 thoughts on “Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Professional Jealousy

  1. Interesting post, but surely you mean “envy” and not “jealousy”? Envy is wanting what someone else has; jealousy is an irrational fear of losing what you value.

    Grammar criticism aside, some useful tips here.

  2. You can’t live someone else’s life. You can’t have someone else’s career. You’ll only have yours, and it will never be exactly what you expect or even dreamed of.

    It’s interesting that you drew an analogy to Conan O’Brien’s situation in your post, as he echoed your comments on his last episode of The Tonight Show:

    Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get, but if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.

  3. Hey, Kris. I remember some of these growing pains, and I’m not sure I’ve outgrown them yet. I like what you say about learning from the jealousy.

    Sometimes I say this a different way: “Admire. Aspire. Acquire.”

    See someone doing something you’d like to do yourself, go for it, learn it.

    Meanwhile, though, chasing down some phantoms and trying to get them to talk. 🙂

  4. Profound thanks for the effort to engage this topic.

    I have a less-common reaction to my own jealousy of others. I turn it inward. I get so intimidated that I’ll sometimes break off communications, sometimes with friends I’ve had for as long as a decade. Then, even though I’m incredibly proud of this person, all of a sudden he/she is wondering “Why aren’t you talking to me? Don’t you like me anymore?”

    I work hard on this problem exactly for the reason you’re writing about: This person is hemorrhaging friends. He/she doesn’t need to feel that one more has left.

  5. Hello,

    I came here from Dean’s Blog to read your post. The title hit a chord with me because I suffer from professional jealously. Only with beginner writers like I am, however. And so far it’s not too bad I just refuse to read any lists of stories sold. But at the same time I if I do read a post, with someone talking about doing good, one way or another, I always say Congrats or Niiice.

    That was especially hard a week or so ago when the post was by a fellow beginner who is at the place I thought I would be after a certain event three years ago, at the same time she tears up my writing unmercifully. (I do pay attention to her comments, even when I have smoke coming out of my nostrils.)

    Anyway, thanks for taking the time to do this subject, it is needed, I believe.

    And an aside here, even though I haven’t seen the book, I love the cover of “Witch High”, makes me want to go look for it.

  6. Thanks for the post. It doesn’t matter what level you are in. The little green monster is always lurking.

    I have had to deal with it both in my day job as a teacher and my night job as a hopeful writer. I hope I handeled myself well, not sure I always did.

    I found your take on the Conan incident interesting. I blogged about it this week & blasted NBC who I think is the real villain in this mess.

  7. Great job on tackling both sides of the jealousy issue, Kris! Fiction and films concentrate on romantic and sexual jealousy, but I agree that professional jealousy is virulent and probably more common, from people near and far. One-star Amazon reviewers, anyone?

    While it’s rough to be an object of jealousy, we all face that, especially if you “dare” to put yourself forward as a creative person, which jealous people see as asking for a put-down. Is it some comfort that jealousy poisons the person who harbors it more than any damage that person can do to another? Not always.

    As an only child I never learned “litter” behavior. It took me a long time to learn to spot and deal with jealousy. I recently had a chance to see again the “queen” of a cruel clique that put down me and my other freshman classmates, but mostly me. She now says she’s my “biggest fan” and mentioned being refused a teaching major because she was obese and the department head felt high school students would ridicule her. A terrible bias that explains a LOT! As a writer, I find that learning WHY a person is jealous takes away some of the sting.

    In the writing game, I saw early on that writers write what they must and some have skills or an individual approach that appeals to a huge mass audience, some draw a loyal cult audience, some may disappear from the scene altogether. There’s just no point in envying someone else’s life storyline. Forge your own and someone, perhaps many, will envy you. :))


  8. I’m susceptible to feeling envy a lot – I don’t consider it jealousy because I’m truly happy for the other person, but I compare myself to them and feel envy.

    Over the past couple of years, I’ve really worked on getting rid of comparisons in my life and now I compare myself to where I was only. It doesn’t matter where others are because they are on different paths. The only comparison that matters is the one between me and the me-that-was.

    It also helps to remember patience – people’s success so often comes from a lot of hard work even if we don’t see it from the outside.

  9. Great post, Kris. As a writer with lots of writer friends, from Olympian mentors to newbies who never did get that story published, I have always been surrounded by people whose careers were in different places from mine. No writer’s career is the same as mine — some successful people win awards, some successful people have bestsellers, some successful people have movies made of their books. The grass is always greener — I remember a conversation I once had with Mike Resnick where I was, ahem, somewhat envious of the fact that he wins award after award after award…and he replied, with a twinge of his own apparent envy, that he wished he could have some bestsellers instead. I like what I’m doing, and I like what other writers are doing — I feel like a cheerleader. One author’s success does not diminish someone else’s.

    In the past two years I’ve written and produced 2 rock CDs, working with some very successful rock stars. I was astonished at how much jealousy these guys have, how much snarkiness, how many of them harshly criticize the work of their colleagues (usually behind their backs … and I got to be the one in the middle, yippee for me). Oh not all of them, of course — some of the people I worked with were real gems. But it seemed much more prevalent than I have found among my writer colleagues.

  10. Thanks for this, from the woman who asked. I had come to the same conclusions, but I’m always curious about your take, so thanks again.
    “Envy is an insult to oneself.”–Yevgeny Yevtushenko

    1. Thanks for suggesting this, Melissa. It’s clearly hit a chord. I’ve gotten a lot of personal e-mails as well, and may have to write a follow-up next week. I love that quote, btw. And thanks, too, everyone, for all the comments.

  11. Nice. I think a certain amount of professional jealousy is typical, but you’re right, it can be devastating professionally and personally. It can be quite corrosive to where you believe everybody’s getting a better deal than you, etc. Better to keep perspective.

  12. An incredible and insightful article, Kris! And more than that, invaluable. To know that we can learn from our jealousies, no matter what they be – personal or professional – and use what we learn to further ourselves as individuals and professionals is empowering.

    I agree absolutely that jealousy is one of the most destructive emotions we possess. To know that we can take such a negative thing, analyze it, break it down, then use what we learn to achieve goals and gain better understanding of our own natures is – again – invaluable knowledge.



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