When I first started writing in 2010, I had a pretty clear picture of the career of my dreams: bylines in every publication I regularly read, my own apartment, and enough disposable income to afford takeout every night. But my reality was much less sparkly. I was 24, I was broke, and I rarely got paid more than £10 a story (that's if my checks even came on time). I'd also morphed into That Friend™: the one who needed her pals to spot for dinner, who couldn’t afford to do anything fun, and whose go-to line was “I’m on a budget” (to make it seem like I was in control of my circumstances).
I was also surrounded by writers who seemed to have already achieved a level of success I could only fantasise about. They had killer bylines, once-in-a-lifetime interviews, and what seemed like countless retweets. And with each success they shared, my sense of failure grew. I assumed they knew something I didn’t, or worse, that I was failing in an industry I was still trying to navigate. So, desperate to seize control of my own career, I went on the defensive. I’d pepper my congratulations with side-eye or insincerity, or tried to one-up their news with my own. I wrote for the purpose of besting my pals, and I'd low-key revel whenever I got a new byline in a publication that hadn’t accepted their pitches. Worse yet, I’d simply cut them off when it seemed like they were doing better than I was. To me, their success wasn’t just an indicator that they were better writers, but a personal attack on my capabilities. Because if they were successful, I assumed it meant I could never be. As far as I was concerned, only a small number of people could “make it.” It was me or them. And if it wasn’t me, I didn’t want to be friends with them.
As far as I was concerned, only a small number of people could “make it.” It was me or them.
Of course, this is ridiculous. There’s more than enough success to go around. But more than that, the idea of success is personal. What may be “success” to me might be the opposite to you, but neither is better or worse. If you like what you’re doing, and you feel good about the choices you’ve made, that is a success. Everything else is irrelevant. (And everyone else can go to hell.)
I can share all this wisdom with you now, but I kept my own saltiness up for years, stifling jealousy, and creating distance between me and my friends. I’d lash out for stupid shit, unrelated to work, so no one could call me insecure. I constantly used the excuse that I was way too busy whenever they wanted to hang out, inferring that they didn’t (and could never) understand. But you know, I’d quickly add. When things slow down, we’ll for sure get together soon. With absolutely no intention of slowing down, ever.
And then, of course, I slowed down.
By 2016, I was lucky enough to be writing regularly about what I love (pop culture, feminism, and politics — and sometimes a combination of the three) and making money doing it. I could finally afford to go out with friends and started paying off some debt. Out of fear I would lose it all, I would never, ever turn down an assignment, even when I was hit with two consecutive summer stomach flus and could only eat applesauce for a week.
But there comes a point when refusing to keep your eyes on your own paper becomes exhausting; where existing merely to compete with other people drains you of creativity and of happiness and of joy. At the end of the summer of 2016, I found myself burnt out and sick and sad. I still didn’t know how to unhook my narrative from everybody else’s. Why did I still feel like I was a failure when friends shared good news? And why could I never quench my thirst for success?
I was at a breaking point, and it was terrible. So I forced myself to hit pause, and I took the time to rethink the kind of work I was taking on. I knew I had to stop worrying about what anyone else would think. I made peace with what I wanted my own career to look like, revising those long-held dreams so they looked more like me. It couldn’t look like anybody else’s career, because I was the one doing the work.
Which isn’t to say that I don’t still find myself staring down the green-eyed monster. I’m a human person (hi!), which means I can be petty and jealous and terrible. While I’ve finally stopped using my writing as a means to compete with friends and peers and strangers, I still sometimes grapple with my choices. I have to remind myself regularly that I’m the one who makes my career decisions, and I can take full credit for the successes and the failures. It’s not flattering to admit that I’m jealous or petty, but I also know I’m not alone, nor is my experience exclusive to the media world. At some point, we are all messy and resentful, we make mistakes and think ugly thoughts we might later regret. But that’s also how you learn and grow, how you push yourselves to do more and be more.
Present day Anne is different than 2010 Anne in many ways. She works hard and she writes what she cares about and can be as happy for her friends as she can for herself. (She also talks in third person sometimes.) And thankfully, she’s learned to be more gracious. Because while a little competitive spirit never hurt anyone, resentment ruins everything. I love work, I love writing, but life is much bigger than both of those things because it needs to be. Success and achievements are great and fun and rarely a bad thing, but if you’ve got no one to share them with, they’re also totally pointless.