As a writer, it can be difficult to quantify success, and when you get it, it can seem very fleeting. So many writers, myself included, often feel compelled to compare ourselves to others, to measure ourselves against our peers and idols. You just sold a short story? Someone else just sold a novel. You just sold a novel? Someone else sold a novel too, but they got a way bigger advance than you did.
No matter how successful you may be, there’s always someone else who did something that seems just a little bit better. And because of the horrors of social media and the fact that people tend to only share good news, you don’t see the dry spells that inevitably happen in the course of a creative career—you only see highlights from everyone else’s greatest successes. You won’t often see people post their rejection letters or their negative reviews—you only see them post their big wins.
Under such an onslaught of good news from your peers, it’s natural to imagine that everyone in the whole world is doing better than you are, and maybe you just aren’t that talented. Even if you know on a conscious level that everyone struggles, it’s hard to make your brain understand that for every byline at a glossy mag, there are a ton of rejection letters and unanswered pitch emails. But they really are there, even if you aren’t seeing them.
When you’re feeling like the least successful person you know, it’s useful to pull back and think just about your own work, outside the context of your peers. What project are you working on right now? What progress have you made in the last few years? How have you grown? Just like they tell you in school, you succeed best when you keep your eyes on your own paper and don’t worry about how everyone else is doing. If someone else is finishing their assignment faster than you are, that’s fine! It doesn’t mean you can’t do good work too. For every minute you spend comparing yourself to someone else, or putting yourself down, that’s one minute less that you have to write your own work or do something that will make you happy. It’s probably not possible to stop comparing yourself to others entirely, but it’s worth making the effort to curb that habit, and not feed the feeling when it comes up.
Other people’s successes aren’t a measuring stick for your own successes, and plenty of people have struggles going on in their lives that they don’t willingly share on social media. The person you imagine has everything figure out could feel just as lost and unsuccessful as you do. I got a letter recently from a friend congratulating me for having a really impressive year, and letting me know that they were inspired by how hard I worked and how much success I’d seen recently. I read through it and initially felt confused—what were they talking about? In the last year, I’d felt aimless and lost and I’d faced innumerable setbacks and rejections. But all they saw was the good stuff, because that’s all I talked about. And it took them mentioning it to me for me to remember that I had achieved a lot. Sometime you just need a reminder to check back in with yourself and acknowledge that.