Envy Blight on the Creativity Plant

Here’s weird advice: Stop being a vicious dickhead to your hypothetical ideal future self. Just stop. It’s not productive, it’s existentially boggling, and it will eventually come gunning up behind you to take a fat chunk out of your ass.

Envy and jealousy are difficult, inevitable emotions. When you’re a maker of things – be it books, illustrations, comics, elaborate woven plastic bag sculpture – that shit hits you where you live. Very often, they occur spontaneously and they can destroy you if allowed to run around unchecked.

I’m gonna play Internet Confessional real quick here: I absolve you from the guilt you feel over your envy and your jealousy. These are common feelings experienced at every level of a creative career, and emotionally bludgeoning yourself over it won’t make it go away. You have my permission, for the duration of this post, to stop feeling bad and start feeling proactive. All right? If you’re not there yet, try real hard and know I believe in you.

Okay. So. Envy, jealousy, they’re two separate things. Envy is reactionary emotional action on someone else and their Things, whereas jealousy is preemptive emotional action on your Things. Envy is seeing someone with a larger pile of candy beans than you’ve got and thinking, “That asshole. I wish I had that many candy beans.” Jealousy is having your candy bean mound all secure but suspecting very strongly that that cockhole Doug, on the other side of the table, is eyeing them up. Desire for something that’s not yours vs. fear of losing something that is yours, regardless of the credibility of that fear.

As a maker of things, you’re pretty well-acquainted with envy. I am, I admit it. I’m not proud and it’s a universal sensation. Someone has more talent than you do, you want that. Someone makes more money doing the same thing you do, you want that. Someone has a job you want, someone got into an anthology you pitched, someone has a larger Number than you on a website. It’s very basic. We see someone with More and we go, “Arg! No! Me!”

And that’s a feeling you can learn to defuse. It takes reflection and being hard on yourself in a way that isn’t just going, “ARRRG I’M THE WORST SEND ME OUT TO SEA!!” but it can be done. What you need to do, first of all, is get in the habit of reminding yourself that we see other people’s successes (for the most part) out of context. We don’t see all the frustration and late nights that go into the talent we lust after. We don’t get to read and count and gloat over the rejection forms that lead, like a super depressing trail of rose petals, to that one anthology acceptance we were hankering for. We see somebody with a whole ton of Twitter followers and we don’t stop to consider that that doesn’t translate out into anything meaningful and they could very well be pulling day shifts at CVS to make ends meet. We just… don’t think about that shit, and we should. We should allow the people who have More to be people, like us. It tends to make your world smaller and less terrifying.

Jealousy’s harder to pin down in this context because it’s so often this weird hypothetical jealousy where we’ve earmarked an audience and a place for ourselves and we’re scared to shit Some Fucker is going to slide in and take All The Good Things before we can get there. Contrasted with the concrete concerns of envy, this is a really strange thing to feel. You’re effectively afraid that someone, known or unknown, is going to swoop in and steal your audience and your money and your prestige before you can even get there to claim them. It’s just. It’s weird. The more I put it to words, the more nonsensical it feels. It assumes that two things are true: First, that you’re entitled to these things, which is false. Second, that these things are extremely limited, which is also false.

The world is full of too many variables and assorted chaos to guarantee or entitle you to pretty much anything. The best you can do is keep working hard, learning, and reaching out to people to stay in the game long enough for something to work out. It might happen faster, it might happen slower, you can’t know. Something entirely unexpected might happen, like you try to get into game design and wind up in a four year stint of writing elf erotica after dropping out of college. Life is a crazy ride.

On the subject of elf erotica, lots of people buy it. Lots, and lots, and lots of people, and many of them buy a lot of it. If someone else has a larger base in the elf smut industry and you’ve only just released your first book, that doesn’t necessarily harm you. People enjoy that other author’s work, sure, but there’s an end to his library and readers read faster than writers write. There’s an audience for elf porn, and they’re hungry. Maybe, just maybe, your first book can fill a bored afternoon for some of them. Maybe they’ll come back. Maybe there’s something about your elf porn that other guy hasn’t got and you’ll piece by piece carve your own niche out of a subset of his audience, one that consumes both but prefers you.

These things can happen, if you avoid being a shithead to Ideal Future You. The shittiest thing about envy and jealousy is they’re stealthy self-saboteurs. They feel productive and demand action that will eventually hamstring you. A friend sends you a link to a popular writer calling for up-and-comers to come chat about their work, and your first instinct comes from Envy, and it shouts, “Fuck her! Fuck her to death for having a thing I want! Tell our friend what an overrated hag she is!” And you do, because you have poor impulse control, and your friend gets sort of quiet. They didn’t ask you about that, and it’s immaterial to the prospect of an opportunity to talk about your work on a larger platform anyways. Why did you do that when you have nothing to gain?

Because envy and jealousy, unchecked and unexamined, make you stupid. They make you an asshole. They cause you to say mean things about nice people because you’re afraid that if people think nice things about those people they’ll continue to prosper and there will be no prosperity left for you. You think they don’t deserve it because obviously they can’t have worked hard because you don’t see the hard work, and you see your hard work every single day, so they deserve your anger and your resentment and people need to hear it and you need to yell it because if you don’t it will swell up and pop you from the inside out.

These are all fallacies. They’re all wrong. They can all be unlearned and tempered through conscious reflection, and you have to do this because otherwise you’ll write yourself straight out of the story you’ve made up about the Ideal Future Self you keep attacking.

If you’re not already listening to You Made It Weird, a stellar and hilarious and earnest podcast about creativity and comedy, start. Start, and listen to them all until you reach the episode that contains the phrase, “Haters die. They’re cut off from the rest of the plant.” And listen. Because it’s true.

Envy and jealousy do cause you to shit on other creators, and indulging that negativity will burn you out and cut you off way faster than a deficit of talent. They take your focus off the work and funnel it into vendettas and fear paralysis. It’s hard to work when you’re caught up in who doesn’t deserve what and who’s stealing what incorporeal resource from you today, or when you’re so consumed with the desire to immediately have what someone else has that the work required to get there organically becomes this terrifying hypothetical monster.

And as for the outbursts, the grousing, the shit-talking? Anybody who could be a positive force in your creative life fucking hates them. They might not hate you, they might understand what emotional pit from which the grousing originates, but they won’t put up with that behavior forever.

Please take this time to scroll back up to the paragraph where I absolve you and remember the point of this isn’t to feel bad and crawl back under your rock with all your demons. Aight? Aight.

So who will put up with it?

Other bitter people. And they’re not the most supportive, productive crowd. As with an alcoholic’s drinking buddies, they don’t want you to get better. If you get better, you leave, and then they’re stuck under their rocks with their demons, continuously spinning shit-talk and excuses as to why they deserve what others have despite living under rocks and talking shit. Which leaves them a couple options for emotional comfort:

Get their shit together (which is hard)

or

Start shit-talking you (which is easy).

And anyone with sufficient experience with shit-talkers is aware of this dilemma on some level. They know that betterment endangers that relationship. They know it takes fewer hard emotional steps to expand your shitty behavior to someone who used to be your friend than it does to examine and disassemble those thought processes.

When you let yourself wallow in envy, jealousy, and the nastiness that manifests therefrom, you’ll eventually find yourself absolutely awash in these relationships. You’ll be swimming in a pool of jerks who need someone else to be a jerk with, and the people who see making stuff as this big, complicated, necessarily collaborative ecosystem will avoid you. You’ll have cut yourself off from the plant, a blighted stem with its own pair of sheers.

So take preventative measures. Reflect, examine, be mindful, be open, and be generous. Be wary of fear and of anger and allow yourself to sit with those feelings and pick them apart. It will be more productive in the long run than indulging them while simultaneously berating yourself for feeling them.

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