I want to talk about the one constant of life in Hollywood: envy.
I’m thinking about a patient of mine, a screenwriter, that I saw in my practice some years back. Despite the gains he’d made in therapy, he felt his work was continually undermined by his envy of other writers.
He told me he had to stop reading Written By, the magazine of the Writers Guild, as well as the various chat boards and writing websites, because seeing the deals being made by other writers angered and deflated him. He’d grown increasingly self-critical about his work habits—normally a source of pride and satisfaction—since hearing about an A-list screenwriter’s penchant for “knocking out a new million-dollar spec” every six months. It had reached a point where learning of a friend’s having lunch with a potential new agent could trigger a depression.
None of these feelings were unfamiliar to me. During my own former career as a screenwriter, it seemed as though envy was the unspoken element in almost every conversation with my peers. The dirty little secret of any Hollywood profession. Except it was the worst-kept secret I’d ever known.
For some, of course, hearing of another’s success can be a spur to greater efforts. For others, the result can be a crippling paralysis.
It took me a long time to understand, and to accept, that envy is a natural by-product of the achieving life. Throughout our childhood experiences in our families, and then our schools, and ultimately in the adult world, we strive to achieve in a matrix of others who strive to achieve---such that comparison is not only inevitable, but often the only standard by which to measure that achievement.
With time and maturity, we hopefully develop the self-awareness (and self-acceptance) to measure ourselves by more internal monitors; to enjoy the expression of our creative talents for their own sake.
But we also live in the real world and need the validation of that world. For a writer, actor or director in a commercial marketplace, that means enduring intense competition, and the almost daily spectacle of others enjoying extravagant rewards in fame and money—all while negotiating the often gut-wrenching peaks and valleys of one’s own career.
In other words, that means living with envy.
The key to surviving envy, as is the case with all feelings, is to acknowledge it. By that, I’m not referring merely to the fact that you’re envious, but also the meaning that you give to it.
For example, if a screenwriter sees envy as a sign of some kind of moral weakness or character failing—a view possibly engendered and reinforced in childhood—the effect on his or her work can be quite debilitating.
Equally harmful is seeing your envy as a disparaging comment on your own efforts, a confirmation of a lack of faith in yourself. “If I let myself feel envy,” one actor patient told me, “it means I don’t believe in the possibility of my own success.”
Another patient, a struggling independent film producer, bravely insisted that “envy is counter-productive.” So terrified of anything that might derail his firmly held belief in “positive thinking,” the meaning he gave to envy—as well as any other “negative” emotion—was of an insidious obstacle on the tracks of his forward momentum.
Only by investigating what envy means to us can we risk acknowledging it. The plain fact is, it’s just a feeling, like other feelings—which means it’s simply information, data about what’s going on inside of us.
If nothing else, envy informs us of how important our goals are. It reminds us of the reasons we undertook the creative life in the first place, and challenges us to commit once more to its rigors and rewards.
Moreover, in my own case, I find that I’m much less troubled by envy if I’m writing well, if I’m truly engaged with my current project. (As many of you know, though I no longer write for film and TV, I’m currently the author of a series of mystery novels.) Over the years, I’ve learned that when I’m fully “caught” by what I’m working on, intrusive thoughts about the creative and/or career triumphs of others usually don’t enter my mind. Usually.
So the choice is yours. You can deny your envy, or use it to re-double your efforts. You can talk it to death among your friends (also a great procrastination ploy, by the way), or you can suffer in silence. Or, hopefully, you can accept it with humor and self-acknowledgment, and perhaps explore what its meaning is for you.
But one thing I know. For a creative person in Hollywood, to coin a phrase, nothing’s certain except death and taxes. And envy.