I realised something this week. Whenever I see someone share an article they’ve written on social media, I feel a bit sick. Wait, that sounds bad. Obviously, I’m happy for whoever it is, but there’s also a significant part of me that can’t help but click through to their profile, find out what other publications they’ve written for and how many followers they have, then mentally calculate whether any of my own bylines quite match up.
More often than not, they don’t. So, I’m left feeling inadequate, desperately scrabbling around in my head for a new idea to pitch to the exact publication they’ve just written for, then wondering whether it would be weird to DM them asking for a contact. And this is before I’ve even read the article. It’s exhausting. But is it just inevitable, coming hand in hand with the territory?
As a career, journalism is very performative. Most of us share our work online because we want as many people as possible to read it. Presumably, we wouldn’t be writing if we didn’t want anyone to see it. On top of this, Twitter is full of editors and freelancers interacting with each other, calling for submissions, pitches, and advertising new roles. It feels as though it would be hard to be an early-career journalist and not be on Twitter, although I’m sure some people do it.
Surely there is a balance to be had. It must be possible to feel inspired and invigorated by other people’s achievements, without feeling as though your own career amounts to a big fat nothing.
When it comes to people that I do know, it’s sometimes even worse. While it’s easier to feel proud and happy for them, it’s also easier to compare myself like for like. For example, we may have been to the same uni, had a similar education and career trajectory, or maybe we’re simply just the same age. At least with a stranger I can kid myself that they’ve got to where they have through nepotism, or some other equally as unlikely ism.
I’m aware that I’m sounding very bitter and twisted. I’m not, I promise, I’ve just been sucked into social media’s comparison culture. I do it with other things too, not just my career. I compare bodies, social lives, friends, clothes, candid poses, pets, literally anything. While I’m so aware that this isn’t healthy or helpful, it’s difficult to know how to change. Ideally, I would be satisfied and comfortable enough in my own skin not to be affected by what other people are doing.
If a friend came to me and told me they were worried about not being as *insert adjective of choice* as someone they’ve seen on social media, I would tell them that Twitter and Instagram are highlight reels. People are (usually) posting the best of a roller coaster day, a split-second snapshot from a messy life.
Behind every new job, published article, debut novel, brilliant piece of art, celebratory glass of prosecco and perfect smile, there are rejection emails, interview failures, tears, arguments, failed projects, half-written novels and disappointments.
Just because someone has had a commission from X magazine, for example, that doesn’t mean that their life is perfect or that they feel complete. I think I realised this when I had quite an exciting commission recently, which I wrote about here. Having a career success doesn’t mean you suddenly don’t have to do the daily grind, deal with rejections, put in hours of work for something which might amount to nothing – you still have to keep chipping away. Hardly anyone creates one successful piece of work and shoots straight to the top of their field, because careers are lifelong works in progress. You’re also not magically cured of all your personal problems and insecurities. It’s that seductive ‘I’ll be happy when’ mentality popping up again.
Maybe I’ve made the first step by acknowledging that I’m comparing myself to people I don’t even know. In some ways, it’s actually quite helpful, because after I see something which makes me feel bad about myself, I usually go into a kind of creative frenzy and send off pitches left right and centre, or bash out 1,000 words of my novel. But I don’t want to be fuelled by this feeling. I don’t want to spend my career feeling as though I’m playing catch-up with strangers.
I hope one day I can believe all this myself, actually internalising everything I’ve just written. But in the meantime, maybe you’re that friend who needs to hear it.