‘Every Time a Friend Succeeds, I Die a Little’: Envy and Creativity

Photo by Chase Alias.

“Nothing is as obnoxious as other people’s luck,” said F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Or their success.

By human nature we compare ourselves to others. We’re social creatures, and social creatures create a pecking order, so we tend to rank ourselves against others’ achievements because our brain is wired to figure out where we fit into the scheme of things. Unfortunately, we usually find someone who is doing better than us, which isn’t hard to do because there is always someone doing better than us. Another’s good fortune can quickly become one of the most powerful and dangerous forces in the universe.

“Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little,” said Gore Vidal.

That’s true for too many. I remember one disturbingly piquant moment in 2010 when I stepped into an airport newsstand to get a magazine for my flight and spotted a photo of an erudite, authorial Jonathan Franzen on the cover of Time magazine along with the headline “Great American Novelist.”

Franzen was roughly my age, also from the Midwest, and I’d been tracking his ascent as a novelist for years. I’d read his writing, and I liked it well enough, admired it on certain levels, but I didn’t love it. Still, because he garnered such gushing attention, I measured the arc of my career (or the lack of an arc, rather) against his, and I came up short. I had only published a smattering of short stories in small literary journals, and here he was with a great American novel or two in hand.

The baser side of myself — my ego, my vanity, my deluded sense of self — cried out. Envy cues the question, “Why not me?” As I looked at the cover, Franzen’s wizened eyes stared at me in a condemning way, and they revealed my inferiority. I didn’t have what it took. I didn’t have the talent. I didn’t have the work ethic. I didn’t have the connections. I didn’t have the luck. All of the meaning and joy of creativity whooshed out of me in a frightful gust.

Envy is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die

Our social media streams can be a damning showcase of others’ good fortune. I watch as friends go on writing retreats or to conferences. I read news of published stories, book reviews, and awards dinners. I’m generally happy for such success, but sometimes . . . sometimes, I feel a treacherous pang of envy, especially if my own writing isn’t going so well.

In fact, research shows that the strafes of envy tend to be their worst when our friends and acquaintances succeed, not the Jonathan Franzens of the world, because we don’t want to be left behind.

One hazard of being a writer is that we have a notion of possible success, and maybe even a bit of fame, and most of us are seduced by that to some degree, so we unwittingly create competitions over who’s gotten published, who’s gotten the best reviews — or who is even writing when we’re not. A daily dose or two of envy easily becomes part of our lifestyle, but envy is never good for one’s creativity. “Envy is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die,” as the saying goes.

Hatred accompanies envy like a smile accompanies a laugh. You feel scorn for that you can’t do or have. Envy searches for a curse, for a punishment that creates a more just world, or at least a world where no one is doing better than you. “It is not enough to succeed,” said Vidal. “Others must fail.”

But here’s the thing we forget to remind ourselves: No one is keeping score. As I stared at the magazine cover of Jonathan Franzen, I realized that he didn’t even know who I was. There was no scoreboard that said Jonathan Franzen: 100 . . . Grant Faulkner: 2. I’d projected the entire scenario, and for what?

The scorecard we keep serves one end: to make us feel bad about ourselves. Franzen himself probably experiences similar nips of envy — yes, even after gracing the cover of a major magazine, selling millions of copies of his books, and going to snazzy literary events. Success doesn’t cure envy so much as it feeds it, because there’s always someone else who seems to get more respect, and there’s always a party you didn’t get invited to or an award you didn’t get nominated for.

It’s almost as if our own envy makes us define happiness by the idea of others envying us (and, trust me, that’s not happiness).

A humble person, and only a humble person, is capable of praise.

“All writers will envy other writers, other writing,” said Sarah Manguso. “No one who reads is immune. To write despite it I must implicate myself, to confess to myself, silently or on the page, that I am envious. The result of this admission is humility. And a humble person, faced with the superior product of another, does not try to match it or best it out of spite. A humble person, and only a humble person, is capable of praise, of allowing space in the world for the great work of others, and of working alongside it, trying to match it as an act of honor.”

Instead of measuring ourselves against another’s achievements, we need to evaluate our achievements within the context of our lives. When I feel a prick of envy, I try to ask these three questions:

• When I wrote my first story, why did I write it? Was I competing with anyone, did I want to be a famous writer, or did I just have an urge to create something enlivening, interesting, and fun?

• How do I show up for my own creative work?

• How can I genuinely congratulate others for their success and encourage them?

We all have our own foibles and challenges, our own insecurities and immaturities, and fame and fortune do little to salve the anguish of it all. But do you know what does? Creating. Creating your story, your way. Not thinking about your story. Not assessing your story. But writing it. Feeling the rush of your imagination. Seeing worlds take shape on the page. Knowing that your words uncover old mysteries and evoke new ones.

So instead of getting lost in your envy, get lost in your story. The answers you want can come only from the work itself.

Grant Faulkner is executive director of National Novel Writing Month and the co-founder of 100 Word Story. He’s the author of Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo and the co-host of the podcast Write-minded. His essays on creative writing have appeared in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, LitHub, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer.

Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month, co-founder of 100 Word Story, writer, tap dancer, alchemist, contortionist, numbskull, preacher.

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