How to Deal With Career Envy
Whilst we are (usually) almost always happy for fellow performers to land a job, it's still perfectly natural to feel a little envious. Here are some tips for dealing with career envy.
By Tom Baker
Resilience in the face of repeated rejection is one of the most vital skills an actor can learn , which is why it’s hammered home from your earliest school play auditions and beyond. What’s less discussed, despite coming up almost as often, is managing feelings of jealousy. Which makes sense: complaining about how someone else got a role you think you’re way more deserving of isn’t a great look. Uncharitable though feelings of envy can often seem outwardly, the truth is that everyone has them.
Professional jealousy especially is something that everyone will feel, probably at multiple times during their tenure as a performer - research by the Harvard Business Review found that it affects people at all levels, in all industries. Once you’ve accepted that it’s a normal, unavoidable reaction, the most important thing is dealing with it in a productive way that hurts neither you, your career, or those around you.
Where does envy come from?
Gore Vidal once quipped, “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” It’s as catty and perceptive a one-liner as the writer ever made. Jealousy, in the most basic terms, comes from comparing your situation to someone else’s and finding yours lacking. As a result, a potent cocktail of shame, a sense of injustice and a bruised ego is served!
This feeling is only intensified when it’s sparked by the good fortune of someone close to you. Competitiveness with friends can often be a source of motivation, especially in the early parts of your respective careers, pushing you to work as hard as you can to one-up each other. This is exactly what, evolutionary speaking, envy is designed to do: you’re assessing your place in the food chain, and seeing what you can learn from those around you to improve your standing. It’s just that, several millennia removed from when this instinct helped our cavemen forebears, it seems a little less helpful.
Here’s what not to do
Jealousy has a way of warping your perception of things. In the grip of the green-eyed monster, someone else’s success doesn’t seem something to celebrate. Instead, you see their seized opportunity as one which has been swiped from you, when actually your next job could be just around the corner. Success is not a zero-sum game, although it can often feel like that in the acting game. Of the dozens of people who read for a part, the truth is only one person will get it, and everyone else has to suck it up.
Bearing that in mind is the key to dealing with career envy successfully. Don’t suppress your feelings - that’ll only make things worse in the long run. That doesn’t give you carte blanche to go running your mouth about the subject of your jealousy, however. The dramatic arts are a close-knit community, where your reputation can matter as much as your acting ability. Admittedly, being able to tap into paranoid feelings of injustice and entitlement might make you a good fit with about 50% of Shakespeare’s leading men, but nobody’s going to want to work with you if they hear you’re a bitter old grump.
Remember: you’re only human!
This doesn’t mean you should beat yourself up about these feelings. It’s actually a chance to practise some self-care. Social psychologist Abraham Tesser found envy is essentially a self-defense mechanism. When someone else succeeds it can feel as if you’ve failed, and your self-esteem is damaged as a result. Your negative feelings radiate outwards as well as turning into criticism of yourself.
Admitting to career envy means allowing yourself to be vulnerable. Whether you work through such feelings best by yourself, with a close friend or confidant, or even your agent, the tone you strike and the honesty with which you assess the emotions you’re feeling are the key thing. After all, you’re an actor; you’re used to channeling your feelings when the moment’s right, and realising when you need a different approach to the material you’ve been given.
Uncharitable though feelings of envy can often seem outwardly, the truth is that everyone has them.
Accentuate the positive
It’s an opportunity to examine your own approach with a fresh point of view. Maybe they are doing something differently, and their approach to their career is something you can learn from. Depending on how well you know the person you’re jealous of, you can even ask them directly for some tips on how to get ahead.
It’s also important to get a sense of perspective. Many traditional guides to dealing with jealousy suggest that you think about the actual implications of somebody else’s success have on you. The end result in most fields is that another’s triumph doesn’t take away a chance for you to do well. That’s what the industry is like: you get some gigs, you don’t get others, but that doesn’t mean you give up.
Career envy is a two-way street
Recognising the roots of jealousy can be just as important when you’re at the receiving end of it. After all, it works both ways. For every job you don’t get, there’s dozens more opportunities awaiting you. And for every job you do get, there’s dozens of disappointed actors who were also up for the role! Having your excitement over securing a part dampened by a resentful fellow auditionee is a likely eventuality.
The same advice applies, just in reverse. It’s not something to be taken personally. In fact, it’s something of a compliment to your skills. This individual wants what you have, and they’re disappointed to not meet the standards you’ve set. Act with magnanimity, always offer support if and when you can, and you can make it a positive experience for you both.
What it boils down to is this: give yourself (and others!) a break. Pangs of career envy are a natural result of a competitive industry and human instinct. Finding a positive way of moving forward, and perhaps gaining a better understanding of your contemporaries, is much better than the alternative.
Tom Baker is a freelance writer and ex-theatre employee based in East London. His work has appeared everywhere from film magazines to product descriptions of shampoo to the course pages of major universities. He's heard most of the Doctor Who jokes about his name, but precious little riffing on Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased).