When I heard art critic Jerry Saltz say this during his Longform podcast interview, I immediately got up, wrote it down on an index card, and pinned it above my desk. (UPDATE: 4/15/2021: He writes more about it in his book, How To Be an Artist.)
In another interview, he explains:
When I was an artist, I used to walk around feeling sorry for myself, always. Looked at every loft, every apartment. Hated everyone I saw. Everyone. Hated you if you had a better apartment. Hated you if you had more hair. Hated this one for being tall. Hated that one. Everybody had it better than poor me. They had more money. Oh, I was cynical. I knew why she was getting what she got and he got what he got, and I was eaten alive by this envy. Eaten alive, and now I tell young artists and writers: “You must make an enemy of envy today. Today. By tonight, because it will eat you alive.”
I agree with him: it will eat you alive if you keep it inside. I think one thing you can do is spit it out, cut it out, or get it out by whatever means available — write it down or draw it out on paper — and take a hard look at it so it might actually teach you something.
Over at The School of Life, here’s a bit about how Friedrich Nietzsche felt envy could be useful to us:
Nietzsche thought of envy as a confused but important signal from our deeper selves about what we really want. Everything that makes us envious is a fragment of our true potential, which we disown at our peril. We should learn to study our envy forensically, keeping a diary of envious moments, and then sift through episodes to discern the shape of a future, better self…. The envy we don’t own up to will otherwise end up emitting what Nietzsche called ‘sulfurous odours.’ Bitterness is envy that doesn’t understand itself.
So, first, don’t deny your envy, and second, if you can, try to examine it.
My favorite writing on the subject of envy is the “Jealousy” chapter of Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird. “Jealousy is one of the occupational hazards of being a writer,” she writes.
Some wonderful, dazzling successes are going to happen for some of the most awful, angry, undeserving writers you know—people who are, in other words, not you.
She says the only things that seem to help with jealousy are: “(a) getting older, (b) talking about it until the fever breaks, and (c) using it as material.” As an example of (c), she points out a favorite poem of mine: Clive James’ deliciously nasty poem, “The Book of my Enemy Has Been Remaindered.” It begins:
The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am pleased.
In vast quantities it has been remaindered
Like a van-load of counterfeit that has been seized…
The narrator of the poem goes on to admit, “Soon now a book of mine could be remaindered also,” but in his case it will be “due / to a miscalculated print run, a marketing error — / Nothing to do with merit.”
A good deal of this can be traced to problems of ego. Here’s how Zen Buddhist nun Jeong Kwan puts it in season 3, episode 1 of Chef’s Table:
Creativity and ego cannot go together. If you free yourself from the comparing and jealous mind, your creativity opens up endlessly. Just as water springs from a fountain, creativity springs from every moment. You must not be your own obstacle. You must not be owned by the environment you are in. You must own the environment, the phenomenal world around you. You must be able to freely move in and out of your mind. This is being free. There is no way you can’t open up your creativity. There is no ego to speak of. That is my belief.
Easier said than done.
You could try to practice the opposite of jealousy, which is something like the concept of “mudita”: “Mudita is word from Sanskrit and Pali that has no counterpart in English. It means sympathetic or unselfish joy, or joy in the good fortune of others.”
Easier than that, even, is to just pretend. Have a script that you rehearse and repeat when necessary.
Practice these words:
“Good for him.”
“Good for her.”
“Good for them.”
“Good for you.”
(That last one is sometimes the hardest.)
You say these words, and then you keep your head down, and you do your work.
And should you get everything you always wanted, remember the words on a pillow Joan Rivers kept in her apartment: “Don’t Expect Praise Without Envy Until You Are Dead.”