Apologetic about success?
August 18, 2014 4:03 PM   Subscribe

What I do in terms of career/projects/desire are all one and the same. And I'm lucky enough to be paid to do what I love, and I continue to do it. It just so happens that lately, within the past year or so, I've been especially "successful". But much of my friends/acquaintances are not really in a similar position, which makes me feel guilty/weird about sharing what's going on in my life. I feel apologetic about my so-called "success", which leads me to under-share about myself. Help?

At a young age (I'm in my late 20s) I happen to be in positions that are considered 'successful' and 'prestigious'. I teach at the graduate level at an prestigious academic institution you've heard of, I'm running an experimental project with a great deal of autonomy and responsibility at another renown creative institution, and I'm solely responsible for managing another project that has a budget in the seven figures.

However, I need to stress that concepts of 'success' aren't important to me -- I actively reject an idea of 'success' because I think it's socially formulated, and I think what's more important is to realize what one wants and to go pursue it. So I feel pretty happy that I'm doing things because they are important to who I am.

My closer friends are all creative types who are in different stages of their life. We're past the punk-rock DIY venue stage of things, and some friends are heading off to graduate school, becoming more serious about their pursuits -- but we still bike as our primary mode of transportation, take on freelance projects, build things in our backyard, live in warehouses, go to house parties, friends' music shows, poetry readings, etc.

I spend most of my time working or thinking about my work, which is indistinguishable from 'play'. As a result, when someone asks me how I'm doing, or what's new, I immediately think of the projects I'm working on. This isn't new - much of my friends create work or have their own studios, so it makes sense, and is familiar. But when I talk about some of my projects, I feel like I overwhelm the conversation, or I make it hard for the other person to respond.

This is hard, especially among closer friends, because my projects aren't always hard, of course, and like everyone, I have gripes about my work. I just feel like I'm being overly privileged when I complain about how INSTITUTION doesn't respond quickly to emails or how I'm struggling with the surreal-ness of deciding between a creative decision that costs $40k vs $30k, etc. But it's what I think about day-to-day, and it's part of my life.

So I try to talk about parts of my life that are more easily sharable and empathizable, etc. I hate bragging or boasting, so I end up swinging the other way. This has the side effect of under-sharing with my friends, so I feel like I'm isolated a little bit - of course nobody understands what I'm thinking about, because I don't share it!

I have other contacts/acquaintances who are in similar positions, and who I get along with, but aren't quite my friends-friends. With them, I feel comfortable talking about these things, because I think that "they can handle it", which I recognize as being problematic, because it assumes that my friends 'can't handle it'. But I do have friends who are brilliant and amazing but are struggling to make ends meet, etc. How do I talk about my own quandaries without coming across as privileged or without making my friends feel bad?

I feel apologetic about my so-called "success", which leads me to under-share about myself. What do you do when you have a career/perspective mismatch with people you care about? How much do you share?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (8 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
You're not on the wrong track in under-sharing your work/creative/financial success with people who aren't doing as well. That's a very polite and thoughtful thing to do.

That said, you need to have someone to talk to about your "first world problems" related to work & career, so cultivate some friends in your industry and hit them up for beers a few times a month. This is why conferences and meetups can be so much fun. It's only natural to want to share some of your enthusiasm about your work.

As for friend-friends, it really is okay to be more reserved about your career. When you find yourself in a "my job sucks"-athon with people who are worse off than you, don't feel like you have to participate. Listen, ask questions, sympathize. I have a similar passion for my career, and I only really share three facts: a) that I'm doing well, b) that I love my job, and c) I'm very lucky to have both of those things. If someone's having a really bad night, I'll buy the drinks and the burgers and just listen.

It sounds like you and your friends have a lot to talk about besides work — art projects, biking, music, parties, etc. I think if you found some work friends to get your career-related sharing/venting/sympathizing out of your system, and then focused on connecting with your friends on those other dimensions, you would feel a lot less isolated.
posted by annekate at 4:45 PM on August 18, 2014 [7 favorites]

Been there. It sucks.

Try to make ONE friend who is more like you. This person could be a work friend, a friend you meet through an activity you enjoy, or like me, a friend you happened to make while schmaltzing it up at some yuppie charity auction. :). Put yourself out there to new people in your life. It's perfectly fine to run in a few circles of people.

As for your other friends, by all means, keep those awesome friendships! Just understand that not everyone peaks at the same pace and some peaks are even higher than others. I'm not being a snob, I swear, it's just what happens in adult world. In fact, it sounds like you are doing similar - trying to not be seen or labeled as a snob, because you aren't, but where you just so happen to be in life, it's easy for people to stick that label on you.

I also found that taking interest in others and only answering questions when they are asked of me helps. People love to share about themselves (you included!) so do what you would want your friends to do for you and it WILL come back to you.

Don't ever be apologetic about your successes, there is nothing wrong about wanting to shout them from the rooftops, but sometimes you may be limited in what you should be telling folks. Personally, my dogs love hearing allllll about my stuff.
posted by floweredfish at 5:09 PM on August 18, 2014

I hear you. Visible success in the arts - especially right now as budgets dry up, orgs wither, and times become tougher for most artists - can produce what I sometimes think of as a form of 'survivor's guilt.' I struggle with this to some extent and I'm not inclined toward guilt; it's more watching incredibly talented people not get recognition and get discouraged and start to give up on many levels.

I know a huge factor for me is that I happen to be comfortable with the stuff like grantwriting, applying for opportunities, presenting my work, etc. So sometimes the best thing I can do is help directly when I see a natural fit - do you ever have the chance to do this?

Could you have conversations like "Hey, I noticed this grant your project might be a great match for" and talk the person through their initial "I could never get a grant" sort of reactions, maybe showing them examples from your own past successful applications?

Or as another example, do you ever notice an org that would be excited by a friend's work and want to be their fiscal sponsor for fundraising / grantseeking? Or a residency someone would be a good match for?

Basically, do you see any ways to help your friends get the snowballs rolling downhill as you initially did? That (obviously) benefits everybody - also helps with your isolation. And as annekate points out, hang out more with your high-achieving colleagues too.
posted by kalapierson at 8:47 PM on August 18, 2014 [5 favorites]

"Hope I die before I get old," or, let me talk about myself and attribute it to you, because I think we struggle with the same problem.

This is all coming 100% from the inside of your head -- your friends aren't thinking what you fear they're thinking. The lifestyle you guys enjoy is one with a lot of cultural cachet attached to it, and you not only identify with it, you valorize it. It's a "post-college" way of living & set of values, and it is absolutely tied up with being what Suze Orman called "Young, Fabulous and Broke." Grad school fits into there as a pursuit of one's interests involving voluntary penury.

When you write:
we still bike as our primary mode of transportation, take on freelance projects, build things in our backyard, live in warehouses, go to house parties, friends' music shows, poetry readings, etc.
it implies you and your friends are a certain kind of person culturally; it's not just a random list of personal attributes.

You don't bike everywhere in the way hungry people eat government cheese.

So you have this lifestyle which is in opposition to the "privileged" "suburban" big fat American wasteful SUV McMansion middle-class crap. You may not be "punk-rock DIY venue" anymore but you still have the Ian Mackaye commitment to real authentic existence knocking around in your head, and even if you don't disapprove of other people following that boring generic path, at some level you identify with a community that rejects it. And here you are, being "successful" and thereby being a combo of pathetic and arrogant in the eyes of Cool Youth Culture.

Or so you think. The reality is that your friends are a lot less judgey about your success than you are. The feeling that they resent you because you can make ends meet is your own assumptions projecting themselves onto your view. It's more likely that they still like you even though they don't think of you as scrambling to survive anymore.

How do I know all this? I struggle with the same crap ALL THE TIME and have for years. I chose to stay in my college town, live in a low-rent vintage apartment, never get married or have kids, ride my bike a lot, go to shows, and practice frugality by choice. That's a "better" way to be, says the narrative lodged in my skull. When I talk to people about what I do, I find myself distorting truth to make it sound more like I'm 23 and working at a crummy job. I feel as though, if I actually talked about my career and office and meetings and 401(k) issues, I'd exile myself from the fellowship of the Young Fabulous and Broke.

We owe this neurotic complex to punk rock, yeah, but just as much to the 1960s-70s counterculture. It's tied up with an attitude that college students more-or-less have to adopt to reconcile their poverty with their fierce idealism. I have to lose it, and you have to lose it, or it will take us down.

But what can fill the hole it leaves? I honestly don't know. (A popular answer is "family," because raising babies makes it impossible to find the time to give a damn about anything else.) But I will make some suggestions based on a lot of self-searching and watching other people:
  • Own your maturity and new life. Believe firmly that people respect you for it, and that your friends are pleased that you're "making it."
  • Cut back on the griping about annoyances at work and ramp up the cool implications of the project you're running and the students you're advising. This lets others live vicariously through your success.
  • Find ways to enjoy playing the role of grown-up staid academic or businessperson in public. You're Don Draper / Peggy Olsen, man!
A couple of random stories that might help:
  • I have a friend in NYC who I've known since college when were both trying to out-intellectualize each other. He's involved with a college professor 15 years his junior. Recently he came home from an important meeting and she couldn't wait to rip off the three-piece suit he had to wear there. He had been worried that looking like The Man would drive away his Kewl Alternachyk Girlfriend, but to her, it was exciting to get funky with a guy who (at least at that moment) expressed all the sartorial signs of establishment privilege and authority. If you can see the world from her perspective instead of his, it might help you lose the negative judgements.
  • If that story's too sexualized, try this one: Famous MeFite and science fiction author John Scalzi recently wrote a blog post about how he'd been a part of an online community of "Generation X slackers" back in the '90s. Other members of that group came out in the comments to say hi. Although most of them didn't sound like they had really succeeded in life like he had, they talked about how happy they were when they read about John's conquest of the bestseller list. It's like his career could serve as a proxy for their un-achieved dreams. Nobody hated him for selling out or blogging about his "first world problems."

posted by Harvey Kilobit at 10:27 PM on August 18, 2014 [12 favorites]

Hi! I'm one of your not-so-successful creative friends!

I know people like you, who work for cool companies /institutions and make money. I agree with the above comment that you shouldn't worry about it too much. I might get a little sad when I compare my successful friends' lives against mine, but that's really my problem. I would hate if they stopped talking to me about the amazing things that they are doing. I love my friends and am really happy for their success. And honestly, their work is really interesting! I would hate it if they stopped sharing fascinating stories and ideas just cause I have encountered some roadblocks.

I also really don't mind them complaining to me. REALLY. I understand that politics exist at every level, and just because someone has a shiny job, that doesn't mean that it's all sunshine and roses. A job is still a job, and it comes with crappy parts. I promise you that you have at least one less successful friend who understands this and truly doesn't care if you complain. I can also tell you that making a big deal out of different levels of success is what creates distance. If you want to stay close just treat them as equals, and if they get a weird look on their face, qualify your statements. Say something like, "I know I'm so lucky to have this job, but x is so annoying!"

That said, I really do struggle sometimes, so here are the things that make it better when I'm hanging out with a more successful friend:
- Sometimes pay for food/drinks and don't make a big deal out of it.
- Throw fun parties/events - if you have the means to make some sweet shit happen, do it. How exactly you accomplish this is particular to your social group, but think about ways you can use your success to facilitate more backyard building, better music shows, etc. Whatever you are really interested in, do it well and invite them to participate.
- Listen without feeling sorry for them. You got lucky, they didn't. Maybe you worked harder, maybe you had better connections, maybe you're just more talented. Maybe you just got lucky. It doesn't matter. Be interested in their lives even if it's not related to a fancy institution or large sum of money.
- Help them out. Like kalapierson said above, if you can introduce them to someone, connect them with a grant, etc. Do it. Recognize that you have achieved something and offer advice if asked.

Also, realize that some people might not respond well and resent you for your success. Let them go. Don't hide your life from your friends and let the good ones reveal themselves.
posted by ohisee at 12:06 AM on August 19, 2014 [7 favorites]

I think ohisee nailed it (as well as others above)

You are wise to use discretion when talking about your personal successes. I was fortunate recently to have a gig that allowed a lot of travel, and I kept most of it off Facebook. I tried to avoid talking about my problems altogether for a while, but I think complaining is an important way to let someone into your life.

There is an art to it. I NEVER apologize for my complaints; there's an implication of "sorry, I know your life sucks a lot harder." Similarly never ever compare ("yeah, my boss was annoying yesterday too, but not nearly as bad as yours..." Ugh)

Humor can help a lot. I might say something like, "and then the flight attendant spilled champagne ALL OVER my lap. I know, I literally can't think of anything worse than flying first class in Veuve-soaked underwear either."

ohisee has got it right that some people simply won't handle your success well. That's a sign of their emotional maturity, and probably no reflection on you. I would not dwell on this nor hold it against them.

Lastly, at risk of sounding preachy, I often refer to the Optimist's Creed. It's a good reminder to celebrate your success and put that positive energy back out into the world.
posted by ista at 4:40 AM on August 19, 2014

I think this just might be something that happens to a lot of people in their late 20s, regardless of their "success." Friendships and social lives are rearranged as people start putting more thought and effort into what kind of life they want. Your work and play really aren't the same anymore. Professionally you've moved well beyond the warehouse party and gallery scene.

It's natural to drift away from the relationships that are based more on what you are doing within a particular scene when you move beyond that scene professionally. You'll keep the friends you have deeper connections to. You'll make new friends. Try not to talk too much about money to people that don't have much.
posted by AtoBtoA at 7:50 AM on August 19, 2014

I agree with floweredfish in that it might be nice to at least one friend who is like you and can understand. My best friend is in a similar position to me but I've partners in the past who have been having a tough time at work or things not going they hoped it would etc and I've found this causing me to not "overshare". Eventually I realised that disclosing all the details of each little success may seem like bragging and might only lead the other person to feel inadequate. So I just scaled back a little bit.

At the same time it's good to surround yourself with people who are confident and happy in the paths they have chosen for themselves - thus leading you to not feel you're walking on eggshells in this respect so much!

It's difficult to give specific advice when I'm not sure what your quandaries are (as opposed to your friend's struggling to make ends meet quandaries). All in all you kind of hope that as you're supportive of your friends life and work, they will be the same way about yours as long as they are true friends (and not competitive in any way). Maybe some time you could start talking about an issue you're having and then say "Oh, I really shouldn't talk about this considering *insert crappy time your friend is having here*"- I bet they'll encourage you to share more.

As you have said you have pursued your line work not because of the "success" label, but because of who you are and because these projects allow you to feel fulfilled as a human being. Remember to share those parts with yourself, and with your artistic friends especially!
posted by Kat_Dubs at 10:12 AM on August 22, 2014

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