Your life looks so much better than mine

Portrait of John Jennings Esq., his Brother an...
Portrait of John Jennings Esq., his Brother and Sister-in-Law (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s a great essay from Salon:

“We bought a new house,” my older sister said a few months ago, in one of our rare phone conversations.

“I’m so happy for you,” I said, though I’m sure the octaves and intonation were off. “You deserve it.” And she does. My sister has worked tirelessly ever since I can remember. Unlike me, she’s always been responsible, never leaving a job before accepting another, and certainly never leaving a job and then, instead of finding new employment, flying to Southeast Asia and staying for three months.

“We’re finally going to live in a grown-up house,” she continued. (By “we” she meant her two girls, ages 4 and 7, and my photogenic, equally successful brother-in-law.)

I loved this piece because it unpacks what we sometimes feel but rarely say out loud: I’m jealous, dammit! I want your life(style)/income/husband/wife/house/country house/cottage/car(s)/job/body/wardrobe/kids.

I want to feel like I’ve made it!

And I don’t.

Do I?

House-sitting for a friend was an eye-opening experience: a lovely, huge rear garden shaded by towering pines; a large swimming pool; multiple bedrooms; a home office; enormous closets; a washer and dryer unshared with others. I’ve never lived in a house with so many accoutrements.

She makes more money than I do, and I’m certain her husband significantly out-earns mine.

So, it’s comparing apples and oranges, right?

I’m hardly lazy, but I don’t work nights and weekends and really don’t want to, even if (which it could) it doubled my income. I take as much time off every year, and travel as far away, as I can afford.

I also chose the wrong industry for big wages — journalism — which pays, at the very top, in print, what 24-year-olds earn in their first year in corporate law or their Wall St. annual bonus. If you make it as a writer, you can make some very big bucks.

But if you don’t, you wonder what you did so wrong…

I avoided sibling rivalry by not having any, then, as the only child of my parents’ 13-year marriage. But I also have two younger half-brothers, one 10 years my junior, the other 23 years younger than I.

My 10-years-younger brother drives a very sexy shiny new car and owns a large house. He also lives in an airplane, traveling the world selling the arcane-but-popular software solution his company created.

Jealous? Moi? Well, yes, actually.

But my brother has a totally different skill set and works in a burgeoning field. He’s also been willing to risk his savings  to build his business and has also won a ton of VC cash.

My much-younger brother also travels the world, doing policy work so sensitive he needs a security clearance from the American government.

My father’s partner, a woman I really like and admire, has super-accomplished adult kids a bit younger than I am. One is married to a gazillionaire and speaks fluent Chinese. Oy.

I like feeling I’m doing OK. But, by many conventional measures, I’m not. People my age own and run major corporations or universities. They boast about their kids and grandkids; we have neither. They look like grown-ups while I often feel (and am, happily, mistaken for) a decade or so younger.

So — which is it?

Life is cool? Life sucks?

It’s too easy to look at other lives and find the flaws in our own.

My 10-years-younger brother, when I was once — as I often do — flagellating myself for my relative lack of success, pointed out that my generation had a hell of a lot more competition for jobs and a lot worse economy within which to get one, or several.

It’s all relative…given that millions of people in this world survive on less than $1 a day in income. The challenge is to remember this, not to focus on the in(s)anity of the material wealth flaunted before our eyes, by friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, let alone the mass media.

Times are tough, and with growing income inequality — with American CEOs typically pulling in 475 times the pay of their least-paid workers — it’s getting even uglier.

Do you find yourself feeling envious of others’ success?

Do you compare yourself to more successful/settled siblings?

35 thoughts on “Your life looks so much better than mine

  1. I’ve written before about my amazingly talented friends, and as much as I adore each and every one of them, occasionally I do get a bit overwhelmed by how much they’ve accomplished and how little I feel I’ve done. My best friend (who is basically my sister, she spends holidays with my family regularly, and I’m pretty sure she’s been written into my parents will) is a writer and editor with the Chronicle of Higher Education, and is a frequent guest blogger and columnist at various publications. She’s basically doing what I’ve wanted to do my whole life, only she managed to latch on to the necessary experience (she’s two and a half years older) and I volunteered to take on the support of a (two person) family when I got married, and then got stuck with the recession. My other best friends are a woman who interned at the Met and sings at St. John’s in New York City while finishing grad school at Columbia, an oft decorated teacher pursuing a master’s degree with an emphasis on Civil Rights era African American literature, and the last has only slowed down from nursing and ballet because she’s recovering from a majorly traumatic car accident that has severely impacted her health. She still manages to be a government wife and moved to Maryland recently on her own while her husband was off at training.

    In other words, they’re all really impressive.

    I don’t envy my friends, but sometimes I can’t help but use them as a yardstick and wonder if I come up just a bit short.

    Luckily I’m the oldest and have mostly been a poster child, so it’s my younger siblings who probably going to get the complex. Although I will admit to being absolutely jealous, at times, of my fourteen year old sister. It’s one of the family jokes that she can do anything well at first go (so far it’s been proven with french horn, piano, piccolo, academics, every extracurricular activity she’s tried, most hobbies, and computer cartooning), and it can get a bit humbling at times.

    I like my life, I stand by my choices, and I’m proud of my accomplishments, but sometimes I do wish I was a bit further along professionally and skills wise. Maybe I’d feel more…finished?

    1. I think the key to this is that you like your life and are so clear about your (admirable!) decision to support your husband’s career and ambitions at the (temporary, one hopes) cost to your own. Many women would not have that maturity or have been willing to put up with his absence for so long, so in my eyes (and his and I bet many of your more **visibly** accomplished friends) you have achieved a great deal, and a lot to be proud of.

      The latest recession is a HUGE and crappy headwind slowing down thousands, if not millions, of talented and ambitious people; I’ve been through three of them in 20 years and often wonder what my career might have been without them. Tant pis!

      I also love having accomplished friends, (a few of whom have books that made the NYT best-seller list, OUCH) so I hear you on that point. One always wants to celebrate others, but also feel celebrated as well.

      I have no doubt you will soon make your mark.

  2. Like you, I live in a condo and my husband and I don’t have kids. I also don’t have siblings. Many of my friends live in a nicer home than I do, and another friend just got a Mercedes. Am I jealous? Absolutely. I have the same education and job that they do– where’s my nice house? The condo is underwater– that’s the problem with buying a starter place in 2005 in California. To combat this feeling, I think about the good in our situation. We didn’t choose a funky mortgage loan, so while other’s ballooned, our payments shrank. We both have jobs, health care, and security. We can travel, and we have nice cars (not Mercedes, however). Then I think of my friends’ larger homes and the upkeep needed to maintain them and the yard that needs mowing, etc. I think ultimately everything comes out in the wash.

  3. It was, as I blogged before, a real shock to see how much bloody work it was to care for a large house/pool/garden and dog. Too much for me! I did come home to our apartment with fresh eyes and gratitude for its low maintenance in time, $ and labor.

    One fact that keeps me sane is how much we have saved, every year, for retirement, not millions but far more than the average. It means fewer material goodies but also real pride in this decision and some peace of mind for our future.

  4. Don

    Your post really got me thinking. It put me in touch again with those little places of envy in my own life. I suppose we are the choices we’ve made. One just realizes that whatever choice we make there are sacrifices involved. In choosing one thing we have to let go of something else. The secret is in coming to terms with the unique road you’ve travelled down. I’m getting there. I think, what we don’t often realize, is that there are those who look at us and say, “Hell, I wish I had her/his life.” Now that’s comforting, even if it’s a bit warped to feel that way. Thanks for a great post.

    1. I had someone write to me here saying “I want your life.” I found that interesting. I doubt she would, but she envied the fact I’ve published two books. If she had seen the behind-the-scenes of what it took — 25 rejections of each, using my savings to promote them, churning through a bunch of unsold proposals and six agents — would it still look so appealing? One person’s trade-offs are intolerable to another. You make a good point.

  5. I really don’t like to compare my own success against others because more often than not I fall short of the mark. If I do hear of someone who is younger than me, more successful than me, more wealthier than it makes me grit my teeth in annoyance but on the other hand jealousy can be a good motivator. I’ll be the first to admit I’ve pushed myself harder to succeed than I normally would of if it hadn’t of been for being jealous of someone.

    Overall I try to not focus on the material things in life but to live simply & to splurge every once in awhile so I appreciate stuff more.

    1. I think it also depends on your family background and what your peers are doing and expecting to accomplish. We rarely lively in a hut on an island with nothing to compare ourselves to. Sounds good, though! 🙂

  6. Harriet

    Yes, to both of those questions. You’re not alone. I’ve just stumbled upon your blog, but it seems you’re pretty adventurous, and that takes courage! You should read The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown, it will make you feel better.

    1. Part of how I feel is also age-related. In your 20s, 30s and 40s, you think it’s all possible, given time. You get a little older and you’re running out of time, and energy. That’s the current challenge I’m facing.

  7. The only time sibling comparison was an issue was in 5th grade when my teacher Mrs. Borowski repeatedly questioned why I couldn’t be “quiet and cooperative” like my older sister. The situation arises more for me as an adult in relation to my best friend. I’ve long envied her seemingly perfect life (successful husband, well-mannered children, beautiful house, a budding writing career courtesy of other friends who throw work her way). But I also know that behind the scenes there, things are not as perfect as they seem. And the reality is that there are probably people who are envious of YOUR life, too – freedom to travel, your talent for writing, your perserverance in going after what makes you happy. We humans are never satisfied, are we?

  8. Ouch! My husband was compared to his older, high-achieving sisters, and did not enjoy it much either…

    You make a great point. I also think there is much we never really know about how someone acquired that life (i.e. what helped or hindered, when and where) and how satisfied they are with it. There are times I’m pretty content, with persistent pockets of “I wish that…”

    I sometimes most wish my life was much less contentious. My family and my industry are (exhaustingly) filled with people who have zero interest in cooperation or being helpful. I get really sick of having to fill in the gaps for people who refuse to handle their responsibilities.

  9. I do. I am often jealous of my sibling or friends/fellow writers. I hate it because I have had an amazing life and have had incredible opportunities. I feel I should be so much more successful and accomplished than I am. It’s something I’m working on. I realized I know what I’m saying but it can be insulting to my parents, who love me and have sacrificed tons for those opportunities.
    I also get upset when I feel things aren’t fair, like I play by the rules, do everything I’m told and I expect good results. I know people who have screwed up, not done what they’re supposed to and still end up happy and successful. I’ve come to realize I need to loosen up and not be so hard on myself.
    Nice post!

  10. God bless your candor!

    I cheer my fellow writers’ successes (mostly) but loathe one of them, who lives in my town and never smiles and makes a shitload of $$$ and writes stuff I wouldn’t print in a million years. Gah!

    The “rules” are such bullshit. I’ve played by them way too many times and felt stupid and rooked for so doing when, as you say and we all know, some people are freaking DRUG addicts and manage to achieve fame and fortune as glam NY writers. WTF?! I’m not reaching for a crack pipe anytime soon to emulate them, but seriously….?

    I’m much more forgiving of myself than I once was. But I have a decade at most to get this thing DONE; i.e. make the necessary dough and cash out. I have NO jones to be working at 70 or 75 or 80, I should be lucky to live so long.

  11. I don’t have a husband, a child, a house, a bank account, or a good-paying job. I have a dog, a computer, an over-priced apartment, an aging car, and student loan debt.

    There are things that I love about my life, but yes, I wish that my situation was different. I have no siblings, and most of my friends are artist-types who are as poor as I am. At least we have health insurance.

    I look back at my life and wish I’d made different choices, but oh well, I didn’t. I try to make better decisions, but some are guided by something other than common sense… like the decision to become a writer.

    Actually, I’m not becoming a writer. I’m uncovering the writer which was always there, kind of like Michelangelo (I think) supposedly said that carving was uncovering the statue within the marble. Writing is the most soul-satisfying thing that I have done in a very long time. Interestingly enough, it’s sparking a renaissance in my interest in making music. Imagine that!

    Speaking of retirement – I will never be able to do that. Period, end of story. I’ll keep playing until I fall out of my chair on stage. I practice gratitude that I can afford my housing, my dog, food, internet, and that I have health insurance. Will there ever be more? I don’t know.

    1. It is interesting, as I wrote, how we compare ourselves (or do not) to those we perceive as our peers. It is easier, in a way, to live in/near a community where everyone is pretty much in the same boat economically — which the U.S. so decidedly is not!

      An interesting and influential book for me was The Millionaire Next Door, which says it’s imperative (even if/when your income rises) to live as far below your income as you can without misery, i.e. in a neighborhood where you likely out-earn those around you, but save and invest the difference. We often tend to do the reverse — rising to the (scary) level of (over) consumption and material display around us as measures of our “worth” and “success.”

      I’ve certainly had to trim my sails in the past decade. I’ve had two very good staff incomes, but one for six months and one for a year. I am grateful for what we have but I admit it; having parents and grandparents with a lot more dough than I, (while unwilling to help in any way or even be generous with it), is unpleasant. I know that many of my “peers” have gotten a lot of parental financial help, and some still do, far beyond their 20s.

      1. Ah yes, parental help. My folks are much better off than I am – with my dad’s pension and SSI they make more than I do. They have helped me from time to time, and I’m glad that it’s been infrequent. They look around at their peers who are helping their respective children with distain – it’s enabling behavior.

        We really aren’t that different, socioeconomically, so i don’t resent their greater wealth.

        And I haven’t lived below my income, that’s a huge part of the problem. In the past I haven’t been able to resist the lure of something new and shiny – my latest wish: a Macbook Air. However, I’m finally able to resist, knowing that the $999 or so that a new MBAir would set me back would cover 3 months of student loan payments.

        Eventually I’ll get one, but refurbished, from the Apple store. But not until my current laptop dies an agonizing death. 🙂

        And I should make a correction: I certainly do have a bank account! it’s just not a FAT bank account. LOL

      2. I’m terminally cheap as hell, although my weakness is anything for the home, and travel. So I save money, but know it’s not terribly amusing to keep denying oneself pleasure or novelty ALL the time.

        I have mixed feelings about anyone over, say, 25, who receives $$$ from their parents, unless they are suffering terrible health problems and/or cannot do any sort of paid work. Much as I long for “help” I do not, legitimately, need it — and that’s because I have a low overhead and a healthy amount saved, short and long-term. If I saved less, I’d have more play money available for “fun”, but it is simply not a smart choice.

        So it’s chicken-egg; if people know that Mom and Dad can, and will, write a check, why be fully responsible for yourself and the consequences of your every action (or lack of same)? Disdain is wise.

      3. I’m becoming cheap as hell, especially since 2008 – though travel looms large in my budget, too. It’s actually a blessing to have parents who choose to not enable financially… een though there are times that I wish they made a different choice!

  12. if i’m using my skills to the best of my ability (which i clearly am not), then i have nothing to be jealous about. we don’t all start from the same place, so we can’t all end up at the same place even if we try our best.

  13. The other day when I read your excellent piece about envy, I thought about it a lot, and decided that somehow I had been more than blessed in this life, I had also been spared the terrible pangs of envy. Then, just now, I read Restlessjo’s tribute to the Value she places on her relationship with her partner and the tears welled up – yes, I was envious. Yes, it would be simply wonderful to have a partner who understood and accommodated ones inescapable peccadillos. I’ve easily born the straightjacket of ‘save above all else’ needed to fund my travelling lifestyle, but equally, it seems I forgot the price I expected my partner to accept. My choices, my sorrow to bear.

    1. It’s rarely easy to get everything one wants. I certainly sacrificed having a partner all through my 20s as I was 100% focused on my career. Then I married and was focused on (sigh) trying to save a crap marriage — and lost focus on my career at what was probably a crucial time to build alliances ans experience. Feh. We make choices. Every choice has consequences.

  14. Not siblings, but this is one of the reasons why I very rarely touch Facebook anymore. I’m at the age where my peers are all determined (or so it sometimes seems) to outdo each other in terms of success – working, playing, owning, going, coming, showing etc etc etc. And here’s me, thinking sometimes that i should want these things (asian daughter hangover), but never quite being able to bring myself to. I’ve had to start over, recently, and have had some time to think about what I want out of life. I haven’t figured out what I want yet, but I’m getting there with what I don’t want. It’s a start, i figure 🙂

    1. So true. I blocked a few people who never stopped crowing. TEDIOUS!

      It took me a long time to figure out what I most want and am still doing so. It’s one thing to know, but it’s another (if less conventional) to own it and be psyched about it.

  15. I think that’s the biggest problem with American culture, you are constantly being compared or comparing yourself. It’s all about choices and priorities. I’ve chosen to live in a small house, drive a reasonable car and almost never go out to eat at restaurants. As a result, we pay cash for new cars when we need them and we’ll be able to pay off our mortgage in a few years. We do splurge from time to time and I never scrimp on healthy and delicious food. I realized at an early age the difference between want and need. I still battle it almost daily with my children who ask why we don’t own a Wii system or even a large screen TV or why their friends live in big houses with pools but we don’t. I am thoroughly content in my lifestyle but I’m also an optimist through and through. I’m sure that helps.

    You, like everyone, is fighting a hard battle. I admire your work and hope that it continues to grow and prosper.

    1. It’s an interesting challenge, deciding how to live, save, splurge, scrimp — when you are fortunate enough (as so many are not) to even have “disposable” income. I am not in a rush to kill our 15-year mortgage (now 3 years into it) because…I have to live somewhere; I would die of boredom if I didn’t work anyway; it’s not some crushing monthly sum. I’d rather save that $ for retirement and splurge on travel/a nice home right now.

      We eat out decently a few times a month. I work alone at home all day and am buggy with loneliness and isolation by week’s end, so I am fine with this expense and pleasure.

      I’m very able to withstand material peer pressures, as not having kids doesn’t put a lot of those pressures on me (as you know). We only got a flat-screen TV a year or so ago when my husband (who has done this a few times) bought it while I was away…on sale. I might carve those words on his gravestone…:-)

      Although we’ll both be cremated. Cheaper.

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