Friday, February 17, 2017

Navigating Professional Jealousy

When you hear about the new bar that doesn't do wimpy little dart boards - they have axe throwing lanes - you don't just go wandering around the city hoping to stumble across the bar. You get directions.

When you're engaged in a profession that matters to you and jealousy sweeps you, you're being given directions. You can ignore them and wallow in the deep unfairness of life, the universe, and everything, or you can collect the directions and alter your course.

I have this theory that jealousy gets a bad rap. You know the lists. Emotions get labeled positive and negative. We all know anger, jealousy, fear, blah, blah, Dark Side, right? Bull, says I. Nothing is negative until you do something that makes it so. I've climbed on this soapbox before, so I'll spare you the sermon. Instead, story:

I was working at a large Seattle-area software company. I made more money than I'd ever dreamed I could make. Sure, there were pagers that went off at 2AM and there were long nights spent trying to work out why some piece of code had gone sideways, but I had a boss I gladly worked hard for. If I had any inkling that something wasn't quite right, I choked it down. This was what success meant, right? Stable work, good people, and a great paycheck? Then the amazing boss was gone. In the space of a day, the landscape shifted. A dysfunctional mad man took his place. I swear this is not political allegory. This really happened. The new guy so messed up the team that the entire technical staff walked into the managing director's office one day to quit en masse. We didn't end up quitting - the managing director removed that boss. The thing about it was that the work drama made stark how miserable I was. And had been for longer than I'd allowed myself to admit. This was not how I wanted to spend my life. Didn't know what I did want - but I knew what I didn't.

So I undertook a process of figuring out where I belonged. The advice? Look to your jealousy. Every pang of envy, every twist of jealousy, every mental wail of 'why not me?' was to be noted down over the space of a month. More if need be. Then the data were compiled and mined for a common thread. It took weeks of looking at the data over and over and wondering why I couldn't work out what it had to say - but you can likely guess. The thread was there, waiting for me to pick it up: Story telling. Every single item on my list was, at its core, about telling stories. So here I am, driven to writing by the sign posts of jealousy turned to a purpose.

Occasionally, I have days where I'm envious of that paycheck I left behind. And there are days I see someone else get the accolade I imagine I want. But there's no stewing in that. No wallowing in the bitter dregs of wishing I had what someone else has earned. When the envy grabs you by the ribs and squeezes, it's time to look the monster dead in the eye and see what it has to tell you. No. Not the 'you're not good enough, smart enough, brave enough, whatever enough.' Those are lies. Stare it in the eye and find out exactly what it signifies. Are you really envious of the attention author A is receiving? Or are you awed by this person's productivity? (There are no wrong answers - there's only the right for you answer.) Once you know, you can begin shaping your work so it comes into line with what you want. Productivity, attention, a fancy car, whatever the object of your envy.

It's work. Both to pay strict attention to the signposts and to then steer by them. But when jealousy bites hard and deep, it's because it has a message for you. Do you listen?

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