How I Stopped Sitting Around All Day Seething With Jealousy of My Peers
There’s a story I like to tell about the moment my life hit a major creative crossroads in 2004.
At the time, I was stuck in an unhappy marriage, unfulfilled in a PR job at my alma mater, ashamed of the burgeoning career I threw away after fancy stints at The Washington Post and Village Voice, disgusted that I was simply too old at 28 years old to do anything new or different with my life, consumed with trying to promote my then-husband’s band which he did not ever want me to do in the first place so that worked out REALLY well, and perhaps most pathetic of all, obsessed with comparing myself on Google to my peers who were my same age but FAR more successful in their lives.
It was a great recipe for self-loathing and paralysis.
The guaranteed one, I think.
Search. Read. Hate myself. Repeat.
This was my routine. I stuck to it. It worked really well.
My self-hatred — and my certainty of my own self-hatred — was my new favorite hobby.
A few years earlier, everything in my life had begun to dramatically shift course. I started to realize that I in fact missed working in journalism. I missed writing things that I cared about. But I couldn’t bring myself to admit that I might have made a mistake in leaving the field and stopping writing for myself altogether.
I even had a line I would say when people asked me about the change. “Well, I used to spend my time breaking things down. And now I spend my time building things up!” It was a good line.
So eventually, I made a decision. I was going to give up. Not on life per se. But on “me.” My career. My dreams to live life as a creative. My identity as a professional writer. My desire to one day write a book — a memoir even.
Still, I was afraid of meeting resistance. That my deepest, most authentic self might be the most difficult to tame. That part that hated giving up even more than it hated the pain of feeling wrong or bad or not perfect.
Yes, I feared that deep down inside, stubborn as I’ve always been, I might not let go so easily into the night.
To ensure I had a concrete and time-consuming goal I could focus on in making this departure from “me” a reality, I set a plan in motion to leave writing behind forever.
In 2001, I attended grad-school information sessions, sought out alumni and gathered references, studied extensively for weeks on end and took the GREs, passed the Illinois Test of Academic Proficiency, applied to and was accepted by Northwestern’s master’s in education program, and just like that, I had my dazzling new goal before me that I could focus on instead of ever having to look at myself. I was going to be a high school English teacher. I might even get some plants.
It felt as close to perfect as a means of forgetting who I used to be as possible: A shiny new, utterly respectable life plan. Neatly laid out in multi-year chunks, complete with the 75 to 85 percent tuition discount Northwestern afforded their own employees. Very practical on my part!
Subconsciously, though, was a different matter entirely.
I still had trouble reckoning with this new course I had set for myself.
Perhaps most telling of all was the fact that the first few classes I signed up for were not related to teaching or education at all but instead would be a last-gasp fulfillment of the many empty creative arts pre-reqs on my transcript.
The first course I signed up for was classic English lit. It was a sweltering Chicago summer as my studies began. As we read and re-read not only The Scarlett Letter but also The Scarlet Letter’s many relevant original historical texts in a stifling classroom with a broken down air-conditioner in the corner and a dirty smeared chalkboard front and center, all I could think about was that one scene in Election where Matthew Broderick’s character is shown trapped in his own personal circle of “legislative-executive-judicial” ad infinitum hell.
(A very special aside: For all of you actual teachers out there, I realize that this scene is not only a cruel caricature of education but also that, in fact, any personal success I’ve had as a writer in my career is only because of you. My failure to become one comes from the fact that I was missing that absolutely essential ingredient that makes for an outstanding teacher: passion. Instead, my motivations came from a place of fear and fantasy. I had this idyllic projection of how teaching would instantly confer upon me some safe, unimpeachable status in the world while simultaneously protecting me: from ever having to face another editor, another deadline, another rejection again. No more creative pain or risk. Such a self-serving M.O. does not exactly Teacher of the Year make.)
Thankfully, I also signed up for one other course: “Storytelling.” If you asked me, I could not tell you at all what the weather was like or what the classroom looked like. Because that’s what happens when you are transported.
Taught by the legendary theatre professor Rives Collins, this storytelling course was technically intended to satisfy my empty public speaking requirement on my transcript. Quite non-technically, it ended up satisfying something empty inside of me.
I began to find myself again in that class. I found the person I didn’t even realize had gotten lost along the way, who had become too scared of her own shadow to dare try and fail and who could only focus on pleasing and achieving, which is a death sentence for any form of creativity.
Up until this point in my life, I had also been painfully shy. We learned breathing exercises. We learned how to play. I started to gain confidence even. I knew I had great personal stories to tell, but I didn’t have the personal resolve to finish them, to realize that the pain I felt in writing some of them was only a feeling, not a living organism that would consume me entirely.
In high school, in particular, I had once tried and failed spectacularly at the art of storytelling in the realm of personal memoir.
When as a freshman, I signed up with my history teacher to give a talk about the Vietnam War in front of the other students, I knew I had a particular and special reason for doing so. As the daughter of a combat vet, I grew up with the face of war — literally and figuratively. My dad is blind, with extensive PTSD and a frontal head injury from injuries sustained after being shot by two AK-47 rounds to the face. My ambitious plan then at the age of 14 was to tell my father’s incredible story of survival while holding up jarring and unforgettable pictures from the war that I had meticulously selected from the public library. When it actually came time to speak, though, as I stood in front of that classroom with all of the students’ eyes upon me, I simply fell apart.
For almost 10 minutes, I just stood blankly, struck dumb while the Edie Brickell song “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” played through on the boombox next to me. Unable to choke any of my prepared words out, I nervously rifled through and held up various scenes of carnage and war. The class watched me, half-sympathetic and half-mortified to my plight, as I appeared frozen and beyond help, unable to control the tears rolling down my face.
Now, in this graduate-level storytelling class, I knew I had the opportunity to try to tell my dad’s story once more. And this time, I had the notes to do it.
High school was not the last time I had tried to write the definitive story of my father.
When I was an intern at Washington Post in 1997, the brilliant editor Gene Weingarten had given me permission to work on a piece outside the scope of my normal assignments. So every night, I would stay late, sometimes until 3 a.m., conducting awkward, fumbling interviews with both my father and the head surgeon who put him back together. At one point during one of these late-night calls, the surgeon abruptly chided me as my father listened in on the other end of the call.
“Jerry,” he said with barely concealed contempt, “your daughter seems to have developed a rather ghoulish interest in your injury.”
Ashamed and consumed with my own shortcomings, I gave up on writing it and hid my notes far away.
Now, several years later in this storytelling class, I was determined to try once more.
I dug through boxes upon boxes of files until I found the 20 pages of single-spaced notes from these interviews. This time, with a new kind of resolve — and in something like “flow” — I saw my writing through all the way to the end.
And when I finally spoke in front of my storytelling class, the tears flowing were coming from the other students’ eyes.
I experienced something I hadn’t felt in ages: a genuine love for writing.
Maybe, I thought, I’m not done with the creative life.
Maybe I still have something to say. Maybe, I have a lot.
Three years later, however, the contagious joy of creating simply to create had dimmed.
As my unhappiness in my marriage grew, my demons took over.
Jealousy. Spite. Self-hatred. Negativity. Frustration. Paralysis. Contempt.
So, like clockwork, as I sat in my little grey cubicle with my neatly buttered-up bagel and corporate coffee beside me, as if on autopilot, I placed aside the press release to be edited that day, and I turned on my computer, prepared to begin my ritual of digital self-flagellation.
I couldn’t not scratch the itch, could I? That would mean assuming control of my destiny, which is a heavy burden indeed: responsibility for my own path, accountability for my own actions.
No, this ritual satisfied the darkest parts of myself. Comparing myself negatively to my peers, absorbing their latest TV appearances and successful stories and grand conquests as I drowned in the familiar certainty of my own perceived failure and missed opportunities. It was the Internet equivalent of cutting.
But something stopped me from proceeding as the energizing questions of personal agency began to rise in me one by one. I was calling myself on my own bullshit, and it felt thrilling, profound.
What if my peers’ success wasn’t an indictment but an inspiration?
What if I was exactly like all these people who I saw thriving?
What if the main thing holding me back was…me?
I thought about it some more. It’s not like these people who I felt so jealous of were born with some permission I didn’t have. No one gave them some secret license to work their asses off, figure out where opportunities might lie, decide to never be helpless, work their asses off some more, try, fail, try, fail, repeat several more times, and then eventually, maybe succeed — when success is probably not even the point at all. The act of creating is and enjoying the journey along the way.
I realized that if they could do it, so could I.
All they had done that I hadn’t up until this point was make a decision: They decided they were worthy of going after what they wanted in the first place.
(That is an absolutely vital word right there, by the way: Decision. It’s the secret to all of free will. Realizing that you have a choice, now and always. Even when you don’t have one because of the most dire circumstances, you still have a choice in how you react to the situation at hand.)
This, right then and there, was my Kierkegaardian moment of truth: The realization that I was the only one who could determine my story.
I began to ask myself the really hard and the really exciting questions: What had I always said I wanted to do with my life?
The answers came fast and furious and inspiring. I felt electric. Writing. Performing. Comedy. Maybe even one day, I could write that book. The options started to seem endless when I stopped listening to my internal sense of “no, no, no.”
The decisions came quickly after that.
I was going to start writing regularly for myself and others again.
I was going to do standup.
I was going to take improv and acting and any class I could get my hands on.
I was going to stop giving up on my dreams.
And yes, I was going to drop out of the master’s program for good.
Mary Scruggs taught my second-level comedy writing course at Second City, and my first day in her class we all had to go around and introduce ourselves. When it came to my turn, I inadvertently backslid.
I did what I always used to do. I apologized for myself.
“Well I used to have kind of a hot career when I was younger in newspapers but now I have a job where I’m filling in as the director of donor relations for Northwestern University so I just kind of keep rich people up to date on their named professorships and endowments and stuff like that.”
I looked down and my cheeks burned hot.
I still fretted with how absolutely uncool and sensible-sweater-dress my job was. It wasn’t even corporate evil chic. I was just a writer for where I went to college. Here my university expected me to go on and do great things, and now I had some staff job working with them, sucking up to millionaires and billionaires to try to keep the funds flowing. Every day was an orgasm of hyperbole: CUTTING-EDGE PROFESSORSHIPS. STATE-OF-THE-ART INTERDISCIPLINARY COLLABORATION.
But Mary stopped me. She had a giant smile. This was no indulgence.
“Mandy,” she said. “That is so cool! I don’t know anybody else who has a job like that. Think about all the experiences you have that no one else does! I mean, no one else is the director of donor relations at Northwestern and has these other experiences you’ve had working at newspapers. It’s awesome!”
Energetically, my entire state changed.
Mary gave me the approval I was having such a hard time consistently giving myself, and it helped me so much to be able to love myself, my career and every step along the way. I could actually stop berating myself for “supposed mistakes” that in reality were molding me into who I was becoming.
More and more, I started owning my shit.
Mary was also right about my job then being a cool gig. It was only because of that job (which in retrospect, was terrific) that I learned how to speak to the rich and powerful, how to employ the art of persuasion, how to be constantly demonstrating value and gratitude in relationship cultivation, how to respect and accommodate the unbelievable insanity of a powerful person’s schedule and so much more. Had I stayed in newspapers I never would have had the skills that helped me so much later on. What Mary gave me was the ability to believe in myself and my life.
She gave me permission to know that my life added up. That I added up.
Mary passed away far too young several years back. In a bit of synchronicity that still gives me chills, I was in the middle of purchasing a Second City course for a shy young man as a gift the very morning after she died.
I hadn’t been on the Second City Web site in years, and there it was, clear as day. Mary Scruggs had just passed in the night at the age of 46. I gasped, cried, called many friends who also knew her, emailed the new director of donor relations at Northwestern to ensure a condolence got sent to the family, emailed a friend who works on The Colbert Report because she started with Stephen years ago, and to this day, I think of her as an angel in my life.
Because of Mary, I made a crucial leap in no longer walking around with radioactive shame and painfully unfunny self-deprecation (because honestly, it’s only funny if you don’t actually hate yourself ). My framework — and my ability to frame — shifted. I could write for myself again! I could even create a blog with my own voice. Fuck needing the prestige of having it come through the “vessel” of a job that society had agreed upon as the correct showcasing of talents.
I could just use and believe in my talents. Life didn’t have to be a clawing resume fest as if I were constantly trying to squeeze in Spanish Club along with 20 other activities to make college recruiters think I was something special.
I could just know I was something special.
The most important action that I took during this time in my life was not even a single action unto itself. It was a shift in my entire perspective.
I began believing that I had a voice.
Not long after I took Mary’s course, I finally went online to create my own blog. I still felt so nervous, so overthinking. What if people I had worked with in newspapers years ago decided to Google me now? What would they think that the outlet I was writing for now was…Blogger?
But instead of listening to that doubt, I said (silently) back to that doubt, “Hey doubt, thank you for sharing,” then I listened to the smaller guidance that was starting to flourish within: I believed that I had something worthy to say.
So for the first time in a long time, as I wrote up the description, I did something I hadn’t been able to do in years. I owned my credits. All of them.
That’s so cool, I heard Mary’s voice say in my head. I stopped doubting, and instead, I realized the absurdity of my voice telling me that I was some has-been. It wasn’t until then I realized: You’re only that if you think you are. Even when people are being dicks, you’re still only that if you think you are.
Confidently, I typed in my description: “I’ve written for The LA Times, The Village Voice, The Des Moines Register, The Sun-Sentinel, The Washington Post and now Blogger.”
“Who am I?” I continued, then paused for a moment, and then answered the question: “A writer and comedian living in Chicago.”
It wasn’t long after creating my blog that my biggest fear did actually come true. Because someone I went to school with did in fact Google me.
He worked at the New York Post as an editor.
And he offered me a job.
The fine line I must emphasize in all of this, the challenging question I usually receive from those who listen to me tell this story is a kind of waving of the hands and concerned rebuttal, “But don’t you think…having too much confidence can turn you into a jerk!”
What I say is this: If you are already a pompous arrogant narcissist to begin with, you obviously don’t need any of these “own your shit” tips — and you almost always have zero idea that you are that guy.
But for anyone who lives in fear of being That Guy who’s too cocky to bear listening to without squinting, you can rest assured: YOU WILL NEVER BE THAT GUY. Just the fact that you WORRY about being that guy is your built in stop-gap. Instead, move the dial far, far over to give yourself the fighting self-confidence chance you deserve.
Because if you make the choice to see yourself as a player — if you choose yourself instead of waiting to be picked — you will become one.
Ultimately, it’s how I went from sitting in a PR job in Chicago where I secretly watched clips of The Daily Show all day long to sitting in Jimmy Fallon’s office as one of three finalists for a writing job and having Jimmy tell me, “You’re here because we love your packet.”
I didn’t get that job in the end (a hilarious writer from UCB did, and he deserved it), but it helped lead me to an even better job at xoJane. Which led me to the “Unwifeable” column at New York magazine. Which led me to writing Unwifeable the book. A real-life book. I finally wrote one. One that I’m incredibly proud of even.
It’s also how I ended up signing a deal with the TV production company 51 Minds, which led to me pitching to networks and filming a TV pilot presentation. The pilot did not get picked up, but it lead me to learn how the TV creation process works, which is something that I’m in the middle of again after writing Unwifeable.
I can’t emphasize enough: All of this would have been impossible if I had not changed the very energetic framework in which I saw myself. It would have been impossible if I had continued to constantly critique myself as being a poseur, an imposter, a failure and any other ego-driven putdown (or even doing subconscious self-sabotage that is so easy to fall into, like being late or not giving myself enough time to prepare or partying too hard).
Instead, I allowed myself to succumb to doing the unthinkable: I was actually trying.
There’s the rub. You have to be willing to tolerate the discomfort of believing in yourself.
That means being willing to stop playing the games that can be found in The Drama of the Gifted Child, a book about the after-effects of growing up with narcissistic parents, and incidentally, a favorite of Al Gore’s. One of those destructive games is the perfectionism of being afraid you won’t measure up, leading you to do self-sabotaging things like cramming for a test the night before, and then when you get a B or C instead of an A, you can have the “out” of saying, “Well I just crammed for it, and I didn’t really try.” Because how mortifying to actually try and give it your all — and then fail? Then, you would be a failure, right?
No. Fucking. Way.
I think the big secret that no one tells you about life is that no one just suddenly bestows opportunities and titles and states of being upon you. No one says, “Ta da! You’re a successful writer now.”
This is not going to one day happen unless you see yourself that way.
Only when you have the the internal belief system in place that you ARE what you want to BE (yes, even a doctor — albeit with the temperament that you are a FUTURE doctor) and become your best advocate, it will be very hard to make the leap to becoming exactly who you want to become.
Shake off the cobwebs of shame and self-doubt and self-hatred. If you have these afflictions, all it’s doing is holding you back — unless that’s what you feel comfortable with, then sure, keep doing exactly what you’ve been doing all along that will lead you to the same place it always has led you.
Certainty can be a very comfortable state.
But what if you changed your state to this: You can be certain by trying new things that sometimes you will fail (which is a critical part of success), but ultimately it will lead you to achieving the ultimate accomplishment of having had the guts to go for your dreams in the first place. Few people can say they have done that. If you detach from the outcome and the need for validation, the LIFE FORCE JUICE of creating and trying things out (and yes, even spectacularly falling on your face) will make you feel more alive then you’ve ever felt. Something will awaken inside you.
I’ll leave you with something that Seth Godin wrote and handed out to seminar attendees a few years back. It’s a manifesto of sorts, and I love it. “Pick Yourself” was the theme. And this says what I’ve been saying above better than I ever could.
Two notes: 1) The “ship” quote Godin is referring to is one of Godin’s favorites from Walter Isaacson’s biography Steve Jobs. He cites the story of an Apple engineer reluctant to release to Steve Jobs the software he was working on because he was an artist and it took time. Jobs famously responded: “Real artists ship.” Meaning, real artists deliver.
2) The “lizard” he’s referring to below that we must overcome is the lizard brain that is primitive, animalistic, fight-or-flight telling us, wrongly and constantly, “danger danger danger” or as Godin writes more eloquently in Linchpin: “The lizard brain is the reason you’re afraid, the reason you don’t do all the art you can, the reason you don’t ship when you can. The lizard brain is the source of the resistance.”
How I Stopped Sitting Around All Day Seething With Jealousy of My Peers
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