Long ago, when I studied psychology in school, we learned about behavior called “Crab Mentality.” The gist is this: A bunch of crabs are in a bucket, trap, or stew pot. They could easily escape by working together (and every now and then one manages it, even without help). They’re pretty smart and agile and have no trouble forming a chain, creating a ladder, or giving each other a boost to get out of a jam.
But what do you see when you have a bunch of crabs in a bucket? Not cooperation, that’s for sure. They tear each other down from the lip of the bucket, stomp all over each other, and do everything they can to keep another crab from escaping, even if by working together they could all escape. Instead, they all end up as dinner.
You see this in human behavior when members of a group tear down another member who has achieved success. It happens everywhere, from schoolyards to corporate boardrooms. Let someone achieve a little success and instead of celebrating that person, learning from them, or banding together to help each other, the herd tears the successful person down and tries to prevent them from moving forward. “If we can’t be successful, then neither can you!” is the rallying cry.
I see this often in the arts and, yes, even in writing. Sadly, there are a lot of crabby writers. In some respects, I can see where it comes from. Success in publishing is hard to come by. Worse, there’s often no rhyme or reason for someone else’s success. Some awful books take off while great books languish. Some great books are never even accepted for publication while the marketplace fills up with (some would say) garbage. Some hit it big on the first book, others struggle for years and only find success after death.
There are crabs even in freelancing. There are only so many great paying gigs around and writers who struggle at content mills sometimes resent and try to tear down those who make a living as a writer.
The seeming randomness of success leads some to feel that their only path to success is to keep someone else from getting there, first.
This is nuts.
This past week I was dismayed to see the crabs out in full force on social media. A writer (I’m not naming names) achieved a breakout success with her fourth book. Success was a long time coming, but she persevered and finally cracked into the rarefied air of agented writer, published by one of the Big 5 houses. While many people were happy for her, more than a few of her fellow writers ripped her to shreds.
Some claimed she plagiarized the work. (Despite having zero evidence. It was just the feeling that if this book is suddenly successful, she must have cheated somehow.) Some claimed she just got lucky and her next book will bomb. (If there is a next book because, you know, one hit wonder.) Others tore apart the book itself, pointing out every flaw and holding it up as an example of how low publishing has sunk and how untalented the writer really is. Some even claimed she bribed her way to success, paying for her agent and her publisher. (Despite the fact that neither is in the “pay to play” game and are well respected in the field.)
On and on it went, with all the other crabs trying to drag this one poor crab back from the edge of the bucket. Did it honestly never occur to them to be happy, and to understand that the success of one can buoy others to success? Apparently not.
When a writer achieves success, it’s good for everyone. More money in publisher’s coffers means more money they can spend on other authors. A huge success in genre fiction means more opportunity for other writers in that genre. More successful people out there arguing for better treatment of authors, favorable contract terms, etc. means better treatment for all down the road. Successful authors who champion other writer’s works give those writers a welcome boost to the lip of the bucket. Those who’ve “made it” can teach others how they did it.
And, most importantly, the success of one author does not mean that you will never be successful. (Well, unless you make an ass of yourself all over social media as the crabs did in this case. That will come back to bite you.) It’s not like there are only so many spaces for success and now that Writer A is parked there that you can’t park there, too. There is room for everyone, provided you have something publishers want to buy and the ability to tell it and sell it. No, you might not achieve mega-success, but you can achieve something and then work for more.
The key, though, is work. No crab gets to the top of the bucket without work. There are a lot of near-misses and almost-made-its. And if the other crabs are actively working against them, there’s even more work involved.
I think that’s what the other crabs don’t want to do. Work is hard. It’s far easier to sit behind a monitor and tear away at someone else’s success. The thing is, though, no amount of tearing someone else down will make you successful. For that, you need hard work and other people. That’s why you should support others’ success. You may need them to help you out of the bucket one day and wouldn’t it be nice if they helped you, instead of sitting on the rim and laughing as you become someone else’s dinner? Yes. Yes, it would.
Don’t Be a Crab
Here are some ideas on being a helpful crab, or not being a crab at all.
- Remember that we’re all in the bucket together. We’ll all get out much faster if we help each other. Success tends to yield more success.
- Understand that you need others. We can all use a boost sometimes and you never know who can give you that boost. You’ll need someone to help you achieve success, so be nice to others, not cruel. You may achieve success on your own, but it’ll happen sooner if you work as a group.
- Remember that what goes around comes around. When you stomp on another crab, you can expect the same treatment in return. If you support another crab, they may do the same for you one day. Champion the success of others.
- Ask for help. (But don’t be a pain about it.) Instead of ripping the crab who escaped, ask them for help. Ask them how they achieved success. Ask for marketing tips. (Just don’t beg for reviews or promotion.) Ask for actionable items that worked for them and which might work for you.
- Realize that one crab escaping doesn’t mean that the rest of you are doomed. Everyone can escape, as along as they’re willing to work at it and help each other succeed. So what if one is almost at the top? There’s room outside the bucket for the rest of you.