Whether you’re a freelance writer, novelist, or poet, it’s a universal truth that no two writing careers move at the same pace. Every writer’s career trajectory is as unique as the writer themselves. Some go up, some do down, some go sideways. Some move fast, some move slow, and some move at variable speeds like being stuck in stop and go traffic. This is an important fact to acknowledge because we’re all tempted to compare ourselves to others, but comparisons aren’t helpful and are often damaging to our self-esteem.
It used to be difficult to compare yourself to another writer. Sure, you saw their byline in a swanky magazine or on a glossy cover in the bookstore and got a little jealous, but you had no real idea how their overall career was progressing. Now every bit of information is public. It’s easy to see how a book is selling on Amazon. It’s easy to see how many mentions someone gets in the media and how many followers they have on social media. In other words, it’s incredibly easy to make ourselves nuts.
The problem with comparing yourself to other writers is that you have no real basis for the comparison. That person isn’t you. They aren’t living your life, with your unique set of challenges and assets. You can only see the numbers, not necessarily how those numbers were achieved. Perhaps their writing career started slowly and it’s taken years for them to gain traction. Maybe they shot to the top right out of the gate (but you likely won’t know why that happened or how to replicate that success). Maybe they started fast but their career has currently stalled, or is even heading downward. Who knows? Certainly not you and that’s why comparisons are worthless.
Here are just a few of the things that can affect a writer’s career trajectory. Some of these are within your control, but many are not. Since you have no idea what happened in another person’s career, or which variables had an impact, any comparisons you make are useless and even hurtful to your own career.
- Your goals. Some writers set out to make the bestseller list or write for prestigious publications and work aggressively toward that goal. Others are happy working on a part time basis for smaller publications, or self-publishing just for fun. Comparing yourself to someone who has a different goal than you tells you absolutely nothing. The person that doesn’t seem successful to you might be more than happy with their career. Conversely, the person who is wildly successful might not be all that happy about it if they didn’t want that level of fame.
- Luck. Yes, some people get lucky. They happen to be in the right place at the right time, or their book is mentioned by a celebrity with no warning or publicity effort whatsoever. Sometimes a blog post completely unrelated to their book or writing goes viral and leads to sales. Luck like that is impossible to replicate in any sort of reliable way, so comparing yourself to someone who fell into success is worthless. There’s also bad luck that can tank an otherwise promising career. A publisher can go out of business or an agent can retire, leaving an author adrift and needing to start over. Saying that that writer isn’t successful isn’t looking at the whole picture. That person may just be on a temporary downswing. You never know what sort of good or bad luck has hit a career so you have no basis for comparison.
- Time. You don’t know how much time another writer has to devote to their work. It’s possible that they write twenty-four hours a day, while you’re lucky to carve five minutes out of a day. It may also be that writing isn’t your highest priority, while it is the only thing that matters to another writer. There’s nothing wrong with either approach, but if you don’t have a lot of time to devote to writing, comparing yourself to someone who writes all day isn’t a fair comparison.
- Life’s curve balls. Things like kids, health issues, day jobs, being a caregiver for other relatives, etc. can all affect a writing career. There are all kinds of curve balls that life can throw at you. Some may help your career and others may hurt it. Some you can control and some you can’t. You have no idea what another writer goes through on a daily basis. If you’re comparing yourself to a childless person in their 20’s who is in perfect health with no major concerns, while you are in your 40’s with health issues, three kids, and two jobs, you’re not being fair to yourself.
- Money. It’s a fact that money plays a role in a career path. Some writers have an outside source of income that supports them while they build their career. It may be a working spouse, money saved from previous employment, or inherited money. This means that they can devote more time to writing as they don’t have to work a day job. It may also mean that they don’t work as hard because they don’t “have to.” However, it’s also true that some writers who don’t have money are so “hungry” that they work more aggressively and market more creatively than those with money. It may also be that someone has more money to throw at marketing materials such as advertising in major publications than you do. You have no idea about another writer’s financial situation. All you can do is make the most of whatever you have.
And that’s the point. You can only control a few things related to your career path. Your only strategy is to do the best that you can with the resources you have. Set goals that make you happy and do what you can to achieve them. Everything else is out of your control. Your career might move at a snail’s pace compared to some, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Neither is it bad to have up years and down years. Comparing your career to someone else’s is only a recipe for depression and anxiety. Don’t do it. Just do what you can do and enjoy the ride.
(Photo courtesy of deean)