Professional Jealousy: How to Handle Others’ Fame and Success

Last week, I caught World’s Greatest Dad—starring Robin Williams as prep school poetry professor Lance—on Netflix. He’s a hard-working, unpublished writer who is sidelined as everyone celebrates the successes of his easy-going colleague, Mike, played by Henry Simmons. Lance catches his publishing break entirely by accident, and is therefore unable to take credit for his work.

I felt a deep connection to Williams’ character. On many occasions, I’ve felt the sting of watching others garner applause for the same awards I tried very hard to win. Worse still, sometimes the winner wasn’t the most qualified candidate. It’s difficult to be objective when looking at your own work, but there are times you know, deep in your soul, as you walk away with your consolation prize, that yours was the better entry.

Recently, I discovered that an old acquaintance had reached a moderate level of success. Mark* was never a friend, or even a colleague; we moved in separate circles and were only ever together if a mutual friend happened to invite us both to an event. I never really enjoyed Mark’s company. I thought he was two-faced and conceited, with a dubious sexual attraction to minors.It’s no surprise that we didn’t stay in touch. All the same, something reminded me of Mark last week, and I looked him up online. According to the Internet, his art is incredibly popular in one European country and he has starred in an indie film within the last two years. Even though Mark and I work in different fields, I felt the all-too-familiar rush of professional jealousy.

But it was more than just that. As children, we learn how to be gracious losers, but we tell ourselves that we’ll always beat our nemeses once we are bigger, stronger, older, and wiser. What do we do, then, when we suddenly find ourselves losing out as adults? Sure, the situations are different—we seek promotions instead of starting positions and contracts have replaced coveted trophies—but the feelings are the same. Looking at Mark’s online profile, I not only felt sad, angry, and disappointed in myself, but also guilty because of how petulant my emotions made me.

I’m not alone in allowing others’ successes to make me feel inadequate. And that’s exactly what’s going on when that happens. Mark’s fame does not make me anything. It doesn’t even make me feel emotions. I allow it to make me feel the way I do.

 “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Eleanor Roosevelt

Not to sound too much like a certain other Robin Williams movie, but it’s not your fault. another person’s professional achievement does not speak to a flaw in you. This is something many people misuse to compensate for the other items on this list. The message here is not, “I am flawless and everything bad happens because people are all jealous of me,” but, “My personal appraisal and value are not changed by someone else’s accomplishments.”

I don’t allow the simple fact that Mark has become successful to transmogrify into the falsehood that I am unmotivated or physically unappealing. To do so would mean languishing about for an extended period of time, during which I would become directionless and gross. The realization of my error would not raise me up from the perdition of my funk, but would instead drive me further into a non-working limbo.

Just because someone else has succeeded does not mean that you have failed. Even in a sports competition, where there are clear winners and losers, the individual or team who does not take home the gold medal or championship trophy should be able to find something to celebrate in the experience. If someone loses a race, he can take comfort in the fact that he completed as much of it as he could, whether he crossed the finish line or not. When a team is defeated in the final game of a series, they are still champions, even if they aren’t the absolute best in their league. Find something small to celebrate every day, especially if it’s related to your work, whether it happened today or weeks ago.

It’s easy to begin finding fault with everyone else when you stop blaming yourself. Suddenly, when you start associating your lack of success to personal flaws in other people, every negative response you receive can be attributed to their ineptitude or stupidity. Others do not read this kind of attitude as self-confidence. Instead, your inflated sense of superiority drives away business and advancement opportunities.

Not only do people who fall into this trap impute their professional failings to others, but they also oppose the idea that their peers can get by on their own merits. When you downplay others’ achievements, you become the harbinger of all the terrible emotions you are trying to eliminate in your own psyche. In your mind, your coworker got that promotion because she slept with the boss, and your brother’s small business is doing better than yours because he was always your parents’ favorite.

If you find that you are one of these people: stop. I don’t care if people are just intimidated by your brilliance and refuse to hire you out of the fear that your presence will jeopardize their job security. Even if it is true, it doesn’t matter. You have to be capable of rejoicing in other people’s accomplishments if you ever want the favor returned. If you are the only one who’s happy about your big break, then it isn’t your big break; you’re just one person sitting in the dark with a noisemaker.

“You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We’re all part of the same compost heap. We’re all singing, all dancing crap of the world.” Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club, 1996.

To put it bluntly, you have to learn how to get over yourself. The world is going to keep spinning along without you, regardless of how or why other people have attained a level of success that you haven’t. It’s going to keep going without them, too, because they are just as insignificant as you are. It is your job to understand this fact, not to insult others’ until they become enlightened as to how worthless they are.

Who cares if Lorde won two Grammy Awards before she turned 18? Unless your name is Lorde and you are currently pursuing a solo pop music career, I’m willing to lay even money that her achievement does not and cannot affect you in any way. Ranting about how she’s a spoiled brat who only gets by on her looks won’t make you feel any better. Sure, being able to yell about something—even if it’s unrelated to your professional woes—is cathartic, but at the end of the day, you’re the guy who’s doing worse than that spoiled brat who only gets by on her looks.

To get over yourself, you have to learn how to receive, accept, and release bad news completely. Don’t refuse to listen to it. Don’t reinterpret it. Don’t hang onto little pieces of it. You can take as long as you need to go through this process, but if you find that you’re stalling on one step to put off the next, then it’s time to move on. In action, getting over yourself means walking into work with your head held high and a smile on your face as you greet your coworker on the first day of her promotion. It’s taking your friend out for coffee to celebrate winning on her first try the contest you’ve been entering for years. It means shaking the hand of the man who underbid you for a contract and won.

Life is all about learning coping mechanisms, which we are each forced to develop when our old ones stop working. If you feel as though you have to be affected by another person’s achievement, let it be in a positive way: where losing a race means hitting the gym more often, and seeing a colleague get published before you means putting forth the effort to make a new connection with that person. By handling professional disappointments this way, you’re not only developing a more mature and healthy personal outlook, but also furthering your career prospects by actively networking with your competition.

In the process of writing this, I realized that Lance never really says anything about his conflict with Mike. As the film begins, he provides a brief narration regarding his career trajectory, but that’s the last we hear of his thoughts. Instead, we are left to read Lance’s facial expressions and body language—all delivered perfectly by Williams—when Mike’s first submission gets published in The New Yorker. Now, I wonder if other people will read the character in the same way as I did, completely jealous of and intimidated by his successful coworker, or if I was just projecting all along.

*Not his real name.

How do you deal with professional jealousy? Let me know in the comments.