Wrestling With the Ups and Downs of Freelancer Envy

By Joe Turner November 13th, 2014

I think there are two kinds of freelancer envy, one good and the other bad.

In most creative fields, there are a very small number of super-successful freelancers. They get published in all the best publications, they work for the highest-paying clients, and everyone loves them.

I say love, but for me, it often feels like motivational hate. These are people at the top of their games, producing great work and succeeding professionally. I am more than a little envious of KALW radio host Roman Mars and the the fantastic science writer Ed Yong, to name a few. When they produce something amazing—which they do on a regular basis—I want to throw something.

This type of envy differs from the general jealousy people direct at a celebrity or athlete; these guys work in my fields. We’re not all that different; we move in similar circles, and it seems almost inevitable we will cross paths.

This kind of envy is good. Emulating people who are doing the best work in a particular field is probably the only way many of us will improve.

Jack London taught himself to write prose by copying the style of Kipling. Benjamin Franklin used to model his writing on paragraphs he liked in popular magazines. To paraphrase Aristotle, if we want to be good at something, we must practice doing it. So find someone whose work makes you jealous, then put the graft in to try to mirror their skills.

I have reached out several times to both Mars and Yong, and on every occasion they have been responsive, helpful, and supportive. Mars gave me insight into how energy and commitment can be more important than having the right tools—he made beautiful radio for years with simple equipment in his bedroom. From Yong, I learned about developing a narrative style in science writing.

But throughout my career, I’ve also dealt with a more corrosive form of freelancer envy. The bad kind: resentment.

A while ago, a science journalist I will call Bob wrote a story about a new innovation—a topic I had unsuccessfully pitched to multiple outlets. I knew Bob a bit; we had met at a conference for science journalists and touched base over social media a few times. And when I read Bob’s finished piece, I thought he had missed an important part of the story. I had information from sources which suggested the innovation might not be quite as promising as it appeared.

My only thought was: If I had written it, the story would have been more balanced and nuanced, dammit.

In these moments, the freelancer has a choice.

The easy response is to hate your competitors when it feels you’re fighting for survival in a tough industry. Someone didn’t do a great job, and you would’ve done better. Learning from other people’s mistakes can be just as useful as learning from their successes. However, it’s often hard to mine this type of envy without getting caught up in bitterness.

That bitterness can make it seem as if someone stole something from you. Of course, being purely rational about this, nothing is stolen. Bob did not get the work to spite me; it just felt like he did.

Now a bit wiser, I believe we all have more to gain and little to lose from befriending people who are freelancing in our niche. In medieval Europe, artisans working in trades would join together in guilds to learn and support each other. A goldsmith might be directly competing with another goldsmith, but they both understood the value of collaboration in a trade guild.

There are various kinds of freelancer groups which act like guilds, looking out for the needs of freelancers. For me, these include Freelancers Union and the National Association of Science Writers. There are also informal opportunities to network with other competing freelancers by email, on Twitter, over a drink, and at conferences. Building connections with people who are similar might seem counter-productive compared to networking with potential clients, but I’ve found these relationships to be helpful in the long run.

So what happened with Bob? After his stories were published, I told Bob I thought he had missed important details in his story. I was unable to find any publication that wanted my version of the story, so instead I moodily wrote the story on my blog. Bob was gracious enough to read my blog and admit he had not thought about the nuances I added.

There are a few reasons why I decided not to name Bob. One, he is genuinely a good guy. Two, he writes a lot of really good articles. And three, he has been incredibly gracious throughout our conversations. We now touch base more regularly and have been sharing tips, contacts, and story ideas.

Lately, every time Bob and other writers I know get a piece accepted in a good publication, I give a little cheer. I read their work and think: I, too, can do this.

I’m still motivated by how I measure up to my competitors, but I enjoy being a supportive person much more than the guy who was once full of envy.


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