Even as I typed his name into Google, I knew I was making a terrible mistake. The subject of my search was a particular ex-boyfriend. He’d dumped me shortly after our college graduation, and though it was a long time coming, it broke my heart. Now, several years later, I was happily married. Still, that Friday night, I was at a low point — on my couch, in track pants, with nothing but boxed wine and stale Triscuits for company — and I wanted to feel even worse. I hated my day job and the dull cul-de-sac of a city I was living in. No one wanted to publish the novel I’d spent the last three years writing. Though my life contained a few vivid good points, like my husband and our dog, the overall picture resembled a baked potato skin more than it did my dreams. A fraction of a second later, I was staring at an alumni website, learning that the ex-boyfriend hadn’t just been accepted into the country’s most prestigious film school, he’d graduated from it and landed a plum job at Pixar. My screams must have echoed for miles. Here was the ultimate proof of my unworthiness. Once, this guy and I had been on equal footing. Now, he was successful, and I was, uh, not. The career rapture had come, and God had just left me on the sidewalk like a stained mattress. What I felt wasn’t romantic jealousy. It was professional jealousy. If I’d learned he’d gotten married or had a kid, I would have been happy for him. He was smart, funny, kind, and deserving. But seeing his career going so well when mine seemed not to be going at all? I wished I’d never Googled. Professional jealousy has existed for at least as long as human society — way back when, the hunters probably envied the gatherers, and the gatherers felt sure the cave painters had it made. But, as I discovered, the 21st century has brought new twists.
What I felt wasn’t romantic jealousy. It was professional jealousy.
Now we all have access to the finest comparison tools in human history, too. Google, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter show us the most glamorous moments of other people’s lives — the promotions, the exciting new gigs, and the first-class work travel. Yet, as individual users, we tend to access this information in what are often our most mundane and vulnerable moments, i.e. when we’re on our couches, in track pants, covered in cracker crumbs. Add it all up, and you get this FOMO-like emotion, which I call JOCS — jealousy of career success. For a long time, I figured all this jealousy was just my dirty secret but, comparing notes with friends, I realized I’m not the only person who’s afflicted. One friend described how he couldn’t find a job after his graduation, while his close friend was picked up from Dartmouth in a limo and driven to Connecticut to collect his signing bonus from the world’s largest hedge fund. Melody Wilding, a New York-based social worker who coaches high-achieving female entrepreneurs, says she often hears about JOCS from her clients, too. What we are seeing, she says, is “a 21st century anxiety heightened by the millennial zeitgeist.” Sounds about right. “Our parents had to go to college reunions to find out what their peers were doing,” Wilding explains. “But millennials have access to so many more data points, every single day. We know what everyone we’ve ever known, from elementary school onward, is doing. And everyone can comment on what we’re doing, too.” Even the most objectively accomplished people are vulnerable to JOCS. Jennifer Weiner, whose books have sold millions of copies, vented in a long Facebook post a few weeks ago about how her new memoir, Hungry Heart, was passed over for Oprah’s Book Club in favor of Glennon Doyle Melton's memoir, Love Warrior. Weiner gushed that she felt, “like crap on a cracker…so jealous that I can’t see straight.”
Internet commenters, from the Huffington Post to Jezebel, shot back in anger, claiming that Weiner is much too successful to complain and has no business being jealous of another woman’s accomplishment. Weiner deleted her post, but if her feelings weren’t what you’d call admirable, they were still human and real. In fact, I liked the author more for the admission, how she showed her cards. (I also wondered what role professional jealousy played in the apparently considerable appetite for a Weiner takedown.)
Ambition is such a huge, unwieldy thing. I don’t know about you, but a decade past my college graduation, I still feel like an ant trying to move a piano.
When I told my own mom I was writing an article on professional jealousy, she paused. “Hmm. Maybe I shouldn’t tell you,” she hedged. “What is it?” “Well, [a family friend’s daughter] just had her first novel published. It’s getting rave reviews. And your sister’s leaving for Paris tomorrow for work. She has to meet with the European team she’s just been put in charge of.” A weird thing happened in my head. I felt a number of truths and personality flaws collide — my jealousy, my desire to be seen, and my resentment of my mom admiring anyone else. For a moment I thought I was having a stroke. Then I started laughing. “You’re right, you shouldn’t have told me,” I said. “Please don’t ever tell me anything like that ever again.” Ambition is such a huge, unwieldy thing. I don’t know about you, but a decade past my college graduation, I still feel like an ant trying to move a piano. Ambition is also about more than just our specific goals. It’s about how each of us wants to be recognized, cared for, and loved. Still, I wondered, isn’t there any way to cope that doesn’t involve shutting down conversations or trying to stifle your own reactions? Wilding offers one way forward. “Use the feeling to your advantage,” she suggests. “You could get oriented to your own passion by thinking, Who am I jealous of? Who do I aspire to be like?” Which is what I did after that fateful Google. A few months later, I quit the dead-end job and found a better one, in a city I liked a lot more. I’m still not exactly where I want to be — but I’m closer, and I’ve got JOCS to thank.