You have to stop comparing yourself to people who are exceptional”, an exgirlfriend said to me once. How I responded is lost to time, but I can only imagine that it included the word “ouch”. To be fair, in its retelling the comment sounds harsher than was originally intended; when she said exceptional she meant outlier rather than great.
I can’t remember precisely what I was complaining about – it may have been Orson Welles directing Citizen Kane at the age of 25, or Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein at 20, or Napoleon conquering Italy at 26, or the Beatles breaking up before any of its members had turned 30 – but she was trying to impart a valuable lesson about judging myself against the experiences of those in wildly different circumstances.
Like most valuable lessons imparted by ex-girlfriends, of course, I chose not to take it on board.
The world of work is inherently competitive, and applying for any salaried position is a fierce business – you have to write letters about yourself and attend interviews like you’re a schoolchild trying to win a contest – but to be a freelancer is to be reminded daily of how many others out there are trying to do the exact job that you are.
As I moved into a career as a freelance writer I found that not only was I comparing myself to people who were exceptional, I was comparing myself to everyone. Even as I became busier and established myself, I couldn’t help but look covetously over at the plates of my peers.
Which publications were they writing for? What were they being commissioned to write about? What were their word lengths? How come they all seemed so prolific when I could lose an afternoon to writing a single sentence?
It wasn’t that I was unhappy with my own situation, but there’s an essential insecurity in being self-employed that’s difficult to shake.
It doesn’t matter if you have a healthy stable of contractors that you regularly work for, there’s still the fear that it might all go away tomorrow, that you should be doing more, that you are in some way falling behind and are about to be lapped.
There’s presumably some sort of delicious German word for that sensation in the pit of your stomach when you realise that someone who’s the same age you are and started from roughly the same spot as you did, at the same time, has reached heights that seem impossibly distant.
This nagging sensation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s okay to be unsatisfied. It can be decidedly beneficial to career progression, in fact: a sense of competition can inspire you to push yourself, to be bolder and more ambitious.
At a certain point though you have to ask if you’re profiting from your feelings of professional jealousy or merely indulging in them.
Is your work stronger and your career better, or is it just making you less happy about something that you’ve spent your whole adult life pursuing and are now making an actual living from?
It’s natural (albeit depressing) to compare your progress with those around you, but it’s also wise to monitor how this inclination expresses itself.
Healthy competition is useful, bitterness is not. Supporting your peers is useful, rooting against them is not. Encouraging those who are starting out in your industry is useful, undermining them is not.
There’s normally a high road to take, and you normally know what it is. The more energy you expend worrying because a person is doing something that you’d like to be doing, the less energy you spend doing your own things.
There will always be someone trying to get the same gig that you are – someone younger or more experienced, someone more nuanced or possessing more raw talent. It doesn’t matter how good you are, there will always be people who surpass you in some area, just as you might surpass them in another.
Unless you work in a field that maintains intricate and ongoing rankings – if you happen to be a tennis player, basically – it isn’t possible to be the absolute, definitive best at your job, and even in that scenario your abilities would still fluctuate depending on experience, age and form.
We create narratives for ourselves that suggest this isn’t the case and even devise baubles like award ceremonies to corroborate them, but outside of competitive sport there are few occupations that you can truly “win” at.
This doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible to get better at your work or improve your place within your chosen industry, but for the most part your own progress has very little relationship to the progress of anyone else.
There are only so many hours in the day – you can’t do everything, and just because someone has accomplished something doesn’t mean that you’ve lost.
This is something that’s easier to appreciate intellectually than it is to believe deep down, but there’s a comfort to be found in realising that many people experience the same struggle to some degree or another. You’re not alone in your neuroticism.
We’re all trapped in the scaffold of our own experience so we all have an inaccurate sense of everyone else’s circumstances. It’s harder to comprehend the professional struggles of others when only success peers out above the water.
What’s below the surface is a whole underberg of rejection and toil, just like it is for you. By that same measure, it’s common to become accustomed to your own accomplishments, so they seem less worthwhile than those you admire from a distance. It’s helpful to remind yourself of all of this every now and again, like a mantra.
Time softens everything out, for good or ill. For the past six years I’ve been the associate editor of an independent women’s magazine called oh comely.
As a fair amount of my writing has been for a single outlet I haven’t had the time to write quite as widely as I would like, but this has been compensated by having the latitude to write freely about a range of things I’ve been interested in, from the ridiculous to the profound.
If I’d left earlier (and not a single person who was involved with the magazine when I joined is still there – I assume this is vaguely what it must feel like to be the oldest person in the world and realise that everyone who was alive when you were born is dead), I may now have bylines in more publications, but then I probably wouldn’t have been able to persuade anyone else to commission me to cycle around London eating at fried chicken restaurants named after different U.S. states and then write about it.
There are always trade-offs. Ultimately you make your own path, as a result of your choices, luck, effort and ability, and you come to understand that doing so means there will be many, many paths that you don’t take. Other people will take them instead, and that’s okay.