I’m hoping you can help me with some coping mechanisms for jealousy which will help me feel less like the shittiest friend in the universe.
Long story short, a friend got a job I wanted, and I’ve spent months failing to not let it affect our friendship. The whole story is long but the important details are these:
She got an early start in the “big leagues” of our industry because of connections I didn’t have, beating me out for jobs before I even knew her.
A mutual friend promised me I’d be his first call on a job I really wanted, but then hired her.
I had a hard autumn, and overwork combined with personal insecurity culminated in me, in tears, while she tried to console me over the job she was (very rightly!) excited to start the next day.
She’s just gotten the reiteration of that job I really wanted. I’m still angling to get them to hire me too, at a lower title than hers.
Last fall I tried really hard to be supportive and excited for her and mostly failed. I’m afraid to spend the rest of her time in our city (she plans on moving… eventually) watching her get jobs I am equally qualified for because her resume is better. I also don’t want to look forward to the day she moves, just because it means I won’t have to compete with her for work anymore. I don’t want to feel like a terrible friend anymore because I can’t be happy for her, and I absolutely don’t want to force her to console me on big happy occasions.
I think her fiance dislikes me and I worry she confides in him that she feels uncomfortable in our friendship, or that she thinks I’m an incompetent artist. I will never actually know without damaging the friendship by pushing the issue, but it bothers me anyway.
I have read your “focus on yourself and what you like” advice, and the “back off and gently let reconnection happen” advice and that has been helping, but I’m worried that watching her have a job I wanted will disintegrate our friendship, or worse, if she doesn’t, or isn’t able to hire me. I need a way to restructure what’s happening in my head so I’m not feeling overwhelmingly betrayed by this friend who hired her, and jealous of her all the time.
There’s an episode of Atlanta called “Value” (recap here) that’s about Vanessa and her friend Jayde that so perfectly captures the feeling of what you’re describing in your letter. In the episode, Vanessa and Jayde go out to dinner, and there is some weird one-upmanship. Jayde’s life appears on the surface to be a lot easier in some ways than Vanessa’s. These are two women who love each other and who have been through a lot together, but they are using each other as a measuring stick in a fucked up, toxic way, and they can’t relax around each other.
There are two huge things happening in this letter: Getting right with your friend and getting right with your art. I think you should spend the bulk of your energy getting right with your art. If you can carve out a way of doing your work that is just yours, the pressure on your friendships to “pay off” somehow will lessen, and that will make you less tense and anxious, and that will make your time with your friend more pleasant for everyone.
One night way back in grad school I wrote a really great scene in a screenplay I was working on. I went to the movies that same weekend and saw a version of that scene in a movie that went on to get nominated for Oscars and stuff. The scene was iconic. It was awesome. And I could never put anything even like it in a movie of mine without people saying “Oh, it’s just like _____.” I got so upset that I put that story on ice after that. I could never look at it in quite the same way. I got totally demoralized about revising it. And the longer it’s sat on a hard drive somewhere in the dusty bowels of the storage unit, the longer time there’s been for ideas from it to show up in other, better projects made by other people. The lesson I took at the time was “You are unoriginal and boring!” The lesson I should have taken away is “You’re on the right track. Your instincts for what’s funny on screen are good. People liked ______ movie and they will like what you are doing, too. The success of _____ proves that there is a path for your stuff. Also, this won’t be the only good idea you ever have in your life. You are measuring your own work by some pretty fucking successful work, and, that’s not a failure, that’s a road map.”
You are measuring your path by your friend’s path and you are getting the message that There Is Only One Spot, It Is Hers but another possible message is Eeeeeeee!!!! You Are So Fucking Close, Don’t Give Up Now. Someone a lot like you is successfully doing the thing you want to do. That means there’s a template for someone like you to successfully do the thing you want to do. Artists are not Highlanders; there can be more than One.
Maybe it’s time for you to move to a different city. Easier said than done, I realize, but we’re daydreaming today. You mention that your friend *might* move away someday and you don’t want to be bummed out waiting for her to leave. Well, why don’t you move now? Then your friend can be the Mayor of Art where y’all live now and you can go get the jobs that she would get if she lived in that place. And you can get better jobs, jobs that are just yours. Your friendship might improve a lot if you moved away. Then she wouldn’t feel you breathing down her neck, waiting for her to either hire you or leave or fail, and you would have to measure yourself against yourself, against the world. Moving sucks, but also, hear me out: Squeezing the life out of this friendship while waiting for this second-best job to come through sounds like a really shitty way to spend a year.
Whether or not you move, you need a new daydream that replaces the one called If I Had Only Gotten That Job Like I Was Promised, Everything Would Be Perfect! Right now you know That Job is gone, but you’re texting That Job at midnight asking “You Up?”” You’re mentioning that you have a pot of soup on the stove “just in case” That Job happens to be hungry. You’re picking up an extra ticket to a cool concert that is That Job’s favorite band but you don’t even really like them in case That Job isn’t busy that night and then being all pretend casual, like, “oh, don’t worry, you’re doing me a favor by taking it off my hands.” You’re driving by That Job’s house and seeing your friend’s car in That Job’s driveway and it’s making you very upset. It’s time to stop monitoring That Job. You’ve gotta rewrite the whole file where That Job lives in your brain.
If you’re never read Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist, I feel like this is a great time for it. There’s a video talk, too, if that’s your thing. One of the principles of Kleon’s book is choosing (virtual) mentors from the whole history of your field. You are measuring yourself against your friend, but she is not the only one who ever has or ever will do what y’all do. Get back in touch with your heroes. Get back in touch with your idols. Be in love with the medium of what you make. Read their stories for an eye of how many of them had shitty jobs just to pay the bills for so very long while they worked it all out. Read their stories with a lot of love and forgiveness for yourself for not being quite there yet. Don’t beat yourself up for not being them yet. Don’t beat yourself up for not being perfectly original. Remember that the stories that you hear after someone is successful are edited to leave out the failures. There’s a documentary that I love about the artist Andy Goldsworthy. There’s a sequence in it where he struggles to build a tower of rocks and the tide keeps coming in and knocking it down. Narratives of success leave out the days spent watching the tide knock down all your rocks. Can you sit with your scattered pile of rocks and learn to love it again?
If you’ve never read Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, this might be a great time for that, too. Let Auntie Julia take you on a journey full of feelings and morning pages and weekly Artist Dates, let her tell you some true stuff about jealousy and fear and being stuck and pet your shoulder when you cry. Jobs will come and jobs will go, but it sounds like you’ve become disconnected from the work that you’re trying to do. Maybe Cameron’s gentle process can give you permission to be messy and vulnerable and shake something loose. If that feels too cheesy or “woo,” read Octavia Butler’s note to self. Bow down before Ms. Sharon Jones. What’s your wildest ambition for what you want to make or do? Have you written it down?
It’s time for you to vary up your social and professional scene. Invest time and energy in other friendships. I feel like you can’t really hang out with this friend right now because the “Ma’am, you’re in my job” vibes of need are just too strong. Time to be pleasant and kind from a distance while you plough other gardens. This also might be a good time to find a therapist to talk about career stuff and jealousy with. You can be honest and not have to paste on a smile. The therapist can console you if things don’t come together. You can be kind to yourself and take the pressure off your friend at the same time.
When you do have time, go to networking events for stuff in your field. Meet people who do what you do or stuff adjacent to what you do and get to know them. Help them with their work and open the doors that are yours to open for them to the extent that you can. Chances are, you are somebody’s aspiration the way your friend is yours. Tell the people whose work you admire what it means to you. Seek collaborators who are excited by what you do and whose work excites you. Build community around what you do, community that does not depend on your friend.
Think bigger than your friend and her particular path. She had advantages that you did not, and a leg up on you. But that doesn’t mean her path is the only way. And it doesn’t mean she is somehow free of challenges, or that she didn’t do the work, or that she doesn’t deserve to be where she is. One concrete way to think bigger is to ask yourself, “If I were a beginner at this and I didn’t know (Friend) or have any connections in this industry yet, where would I go? Who would I meet? What risks would I take?” One of my favorite stories about career changes is about Jennifer Kent, who directed The Babadook. She started out as an actress and invested a lot of time in that in her early career. Then she wanted to make movies but she didn’t want to go to film school, so she wrote to the director Lars Von Trier* and said “Can I come shadow you on your next film and learn what you do?” He said yes, so, she did. (I have a lot of opinions about Von Trier’s body of work and I’m sure you do, too, or if you don’t, you know how Google works. Can we agree for purposes of this discussion that *what Jennifer Kent did* is pretty awesome and leave the Unbearable Misogyny of Lars for discussion in the forums?)
I don’t know if the weirdness that’s already happened between you and your friend can be undone by anything except letting a little time go by. She probably does talk to her fiancé about you sometimes but it doesn’t mean that she doesn’t love you or that everything’s irrevocably broken. She’s not the boss of whether you are a good artist. If her fiancé doesn’t like you there is one 100% surefire way to make him like you even less and that way is to go on some kind of charm offensive to get him to like you. It’s the same with the friend who promised to hire you: the one true way to never get hired by that dude is to have the “I am so disappointed you didn’t hire me after you promised” talk. Be as polite and kind as you can and disengage from trying to work harder at any of it except the part where you work hard to be good to yourself. It’s no fun being someone’s measuring stick or the one they use to beat themselves up with. Time to put the stick down and pick up other tools.