How come I never feel successful?
August 15, 2005 1:07 PM   Subscribe

How come I never feel successful, only jealous?

I am a writer/filmmaker in my late 30s. I have a creative job in the entertainment industry that is by no means extraordinary, yet many undoubtedly would love to have it. My real interest is writing and making movies and producing plays on the side. I have been fairly productive over the last five years, producing a few small plays and some short films. I have received some good reviews and been shown at a few film festivals. Yet, I feel like I'm going nowhere. There's been no life-altering recognition.

I have a number of colleagues who have had far more success. You might recognize their names. Lately, I seem to be obsessed with the attention they have received. I look at their websites, read their raves, and engage in other destructive behaviors. I know this is unhealthy and that I should focus on my own work but I can't seem to help it. I have begun to doubt my own abilities.

I know there are lots of more important issues than my ego, but with that in mind, how come I can never feel successful?
posted by captainscared to Human Relations (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
One thing you might want to keep in mind: no matter what level of success you attain, you'll still feel that jealousy, you'll still feel like you haven't attained that life-altering level of success. You'll always find people who are--or seem to be--doing better than you.
It may not be about success, necessarily, but other factors that are making you unhappy.
posted by Jeanne at 1:15 PM on August 15, 2005

My personal mantra is that the moment when I feel completely satisfied with my life, that's about when I should kill myself.
posted by thanotopsis at 1:17 PM on August 15, 2005

I suggest shifting your definition of success from one that favors attention to one that favors the fulfillment of personal goals. If you continue to rely on what others think of you then even once you reach the top your experience will be ruined by what critics think of your work. Personal goals offer a fixed objective. The relativism of what others think of you will always leave you wanting more.

If that doesn't work I would say that you still have a long career ahead of you so why not stop worrying about success and go out there and get it?
posted by quadog at 1:25 PM on August 15, 2005

It sounds a little like The Imposter Syndrome.
posted by Independent Scholarship at 1:37 PM on August 15, 2005

The Desiderata is kind of a cliche now, but these lines have always stuck with me:

"If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself."

Something about the "always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself" helps remind me that I could go nuts if I focused on where everyone else is in life.
posted by GaelFC at 1:54 PM on August 15, 2005

I'm going to buck the trend -- of course you're feeling like a failure. You're not working as a waiter trying to sell your latest indie movie and selling pot on the side to make by, but most people don't congradulate themselves on not being a total failure. Having friends in the film industry I can atest that this is their number one fear, that fame, fortune and success will pass them over. They're not afraid so much of living off the street, but of not really going anywhere.

Look at what your colleagues have done, have they "sold out", simply became lucky, shilled themselves to the Hollywood set? From your statement it seems like you've had most of the opportunities your colleagues have as far as good venues and the ability to produce your work. Find out what they're doing different and you may get yourself out of this rut.

Sorry to be so depressing, but you seem to want honesty and not a pat on the back.
posted by geoff. at 1:59 PM on August 15, 2005

Perhaps consider doing something truly daring or inspiring; write the best script or screenplay you can, without concern for how likely it is to get produced/put on, or write the novel that's been gestating in your mind for the last two decades. You're an artist, so maybe focus on really satisfying yourself artistically. I have to disagree with the previous comments: your dissatisfaction is not merely inevitable, nor is it some sort of reflexive mind trick. People get attention when they do extraordinary work. Stop complaining and start writing, don't give yourself excuses.
posted by clockzero at 2:39 PM on August 15, 2005 [1 favorite] come I can never feel successful?

I seem to be obsessed with the attention they have received...

It seems to me you've answered your own question. Your problem is that you're trying to "keep up with the Jones'", instead of worrying about meeting your own goals. In the words of Ben Folds,

"There's never gonna be a moment of truth for you
While the world is watching
All you need is the thing you forgotten
And that's to learn to live with what you are"
posted by geeky at 2:58 PM on August 15, 2005

Take a risk. The reason you feel like you're going nowhere may be because you're not being challenged. You're not growing. So take a risk, make a change, set the bar a little higher, break your ordinary mental programming. When your back's up against the wall and you're gunning hard to meet a goal you don't have time to worry about anybody else.
posted by nixerman at 3:13 PM on August 15, 2005

Because feelings of jealousy are internal and easily self-generated, but to feel successful you need external input - you need others to affirm your success.

And you need both the success *and* the affirmation which is much more difficult to attain than looking at your colleagues achievements and brooding.

So regrettably your succumbing to the path of least resistance.

If it helps any though, I live in the Hills, and no matter how much I achieve, I'm surrounded by people who own $5M houses and drive 500SLs and Carreras, so no matter what I do, I never feel successful. So I guess that means feelings of success are also context driven....
posted by forallmankind at 3:29 PM on August 15, 2005

you are feeling this way because you are comparing your insides, to their outsides.
posted by seawallrunner at 3:35 PM on August 15, 2005 [3 favorites]

Lots of good thoughts in this thread.

I think you should define "success" in terms of artistic integrity, not popular approval. Can you keep a roof over your head while staying true to your vision? If the answer is yes, then you're probably more successful (in actuality) than a lot of your more-"recognized" peers. If that makes sense.
posted by elisabeth r at 5:20 PM on August 15, 2005

I also think it's worth measuring success by the amount of personal pleasure you receive from simply producing your work in and of itself. Do you actually enjoy the process of writing? Do you take satisfaction in seeing one of your plays onstage or films onscreen? Do you know others have enjoyed your work? Do you enjoy the respect of people you respect (and not for their fame, but for their genuinely meaningful qualities)? That's immensely successful, in my book, and part of a life well-lived -- much more so than appearing on some stupid Entertainment Weekly "100 Most Powerful People in Hollywood" list.

The thing is, measuring your own success by the barometer of other people's recognition or fame is a losing game, no matter how you slice it. Say you get the attention that some of your colleagues do -- but then what? You still won't have an Oscar! So, gee, I guess you're still not successful. =But say you get your Oscar -- then what? Well, you still don't have a Pulitzer for your playwriting! Failure! See what I mean? If you set up external measures as the means by which you achieve success (and therefore "attain" happiness), you're going to be miserable till the day you die over this, because there's always some award/review/paycheck that you don't have. Rejoice, instead, for what you do have, right in front of you.

(Or as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it much better than I: To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty; To find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.)
posted by scody at 5:39 PM on August 15, 2005

How come I never feel successful, only jealous?
-- captainscared
[...] when I feel completely satisfied with my life, that's about when I should kill myself
-- thanatopsis
Okay, I'm sorry, this is completely tangential at best, but I couldn't help but chuckle at the shall we say "Dickensian" appropriateness of those usernames and comments in this thread. :)
posted by hincandenza at 5:49 PM on August 15, 2005

Because you haven't been successful. You obviously have certain standards, a definition of success in your mind, that you haven't met. I don't know whether it's a realistic goal, whether you're capable of reaching it. But you won't feel successful until you reach it or change it.

Definitely get over your jealousy. As for your goal: If you're ready to quit, then quit. Change your goals and move on. Otherwise, dig in. You don't need to be told it's a tough business, that few succeed and fewer succeed twice. Maybe you'll never get your break. But if you're truly driven, you won't be happy if you give up the chase.
posted by cribcage at 7:12 PM on August 15, 2005

I went to film school too, and here's an idea that got a lot of emphasis: from a career-advancing perspective, writing short films is a complete waste of time, unless you're the director, in which case you're just writing something for yourself to showcase your directing talent with.
posted by bingo at 7:37 PM on August 15, 2005

how come I can never feel successful

Sounds like one of those inborn-instincts-gone-awry type of things. Like allergies - they're often more dangerous than the substances that rigger them. I'd say you're driven - which is a good thing - but perhaps too much.
posted by scarabic at 10:34 PM on August 15, 2005

If it's recognition you crave, have you considered getting a publicist?
posted by willnot at 10:48 PM on August 15, 2005

I have no desire for public recognition (I'd really hate to be famous... it wouldn't mesh with my personality at all), but I have a similar issue.

I instantly acclimate to whatever level of success I'm at, and then I want more. If I'm making $X, I want to be making $X+y, if I'm employing N people, I want to be employing N+M people.

I guess the one difference is that it doesn't really bother me that I could be doing slightly better than I am... I just accept it and then work to make the next step happen.
posted by mosch at 12:25 AM on August 16, 2005

Write a script or screenplay about this exact problem. Be painfully honest with it. It may not be for commercial release...
You're not having fun with a creative job, and you should have fun with it.

Remember that none of this jealousy or petty behavior means anything when you're dead.
posted by hellbient at 10:07 AM on August 16, 2005

Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.
-Oscar Wilde
posted by Thoth at 9:28 AM on August 17, 2005 [1 favorite]

Write a script or screenplay about this exact problem.
Don't. There are far, far too many books, poems, short stories, essays -- and yes, scripts -- about writers struggling with writer's block or toiling in obscurity while their genius goes unrecognized. Don't write another.
posted by cribcage at 8:04 AM on August 20, 2005

cribcage, i know exactly what you mean, and thought about that before commenting, but the point is to get something out of your system. And hasn't everything been written about before?
It's really how you tell it/what you do with the subject that makes it unique. And it's not like you have to stay on the subject - the good part about just writing is that other ideas just pop up. Barton Fink was about writer's block, but also so much more.

But I'll stop telling a speechwriter about writing...
posted by hellbient at 11:55 AM on August 20, 2005

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