One of my writing classes was going to hike out to Poverty Gulch for an outdoor Aikido experience. Alan said he hadn’t brought any suitable boots, so I asked him what size he wore. “Thirteen,” he replied, thinking nobody would have a spare pair that size.
“That’s perfect,” I said, “because I have a pair of size thirteen boots that are too large. I thought I could wear them with lots of socks, but it hasn’t worked well. In fact, if they fit you, you can have them.”
Alan put on the boots, and we hiked out towards the Gulch. After about a half-hour, he stopped and turned to face me. “Now I can give you some advice,” he declared.
“What do you mean?” I asked, not having a clue what he was talking about.
“Well,” he said, smiling, “now I’m entitled, because I’ve walked a mile in your boots!”
Early in my career, after I had published several successful books, I began to receive requests for consulting and speaking at conferences. Once I became a writer/consultant, I was surprised to discover how many people were envious of various parts of my job—and not just clients. For example, we were having an IRS audit at my former offices in Lincoln, Nebraska, and the auditing agent, Joni, was a young woman fresh out of Broken Bow. After three days of intensive work, the only irregularity she’d been able to find was an overpayment of about $100 in taxes—a result that pleased me, but didn’t seem to satisfy Joni.
Most of Joni’s audit work had been with my bookkeeper, but at the end of the audit, she came into my office and launched into a moralistic tirade about my lavish lifestyle—flying all around the world, staying in fine hotels, eating exotic foods in expensive restaurants, and all deductible from my tax bill. “We didn’t catch you this time,” she admonished, “but if you don’t change your way of doing business, one of these days we’re going to get you—you can be sure of that!”
To my credit, I thought I knew where Joni was coming from, but to my debit, I didn’t do a very good job with that information. “Listen,” I said, trying to put warmth in my voice, “if I could figure a way of letting you do all this traveling for me, I’d do it in a minute.”
She threw me a penetrating look, shook her head, and smirked, “Right! I’m sure you would.” Then she left—in her own boots.
My dictionary says that envy is “spiteful malice and resentment over another’s advantage,” but Joni’s attitude shows clearly that my dictionary is wrong. I think that was the year I made, in addition to all my US travel, sixteen consulting/speaking trips to Europe and two to Australia. Anyone who has ever actually experienced this kind of travel knows that it’s not a form of advantage, but a form of handicap.
This young lady from Broken Bow, however, had never even flown to Chicago. She had no point of reference—except, perhaps, Doris Day movies. Her manifest envy of my lifestyle was “spiteful malice and resentment over another’s perceived advantage.” She hadn’t walked a mile in my boots—or flown 200,000 miles in my seat—so she really couldn’t understand what I was talking about.
And, of course, it’s not just young, naive, IRS agents who think my life as a writer and consultant is straight out of a miniseries. Whenever I take on a new assignment, I risk the spite and malice of envy by the other people involved. Although Joni envied my travel, other people I meet envy my ability to stay home and write. They’ve never sat in a chair for fourteen hours a day and hammered their fingers to the bone on a keyboard. They don’t know how a writer’s boots truly feel, so my back pain and finger blisters don’t matter. Only their perception matters, and they may think I’m wearing glass slippers.
If I allow it, other people’s perceptions can interfere with my professional performance, so their perceptions matter to me. Anything that affects my writing or speaking is a subject for learning and practice, so I need to observe and think about how and why others might envy me. And, perhaps, I will need to take action. Here are some examples:
Once, when I was heading for a speaking engagement in San Francisco, my plane arrived at SFO at 1am, five hours late. My requested small rental car was out of stock. The only vehicle left was a red sports car, which I took at the small car rate. I can’t tell you the make and model, because sports cars aren’t my thing, but evidently some of the conference arrangers were impressed to the point of envy. Someone actually complained (anonymously) to the conference’s accounting department that I was wasting their money on my expense account. I had to show the accountants that I had been given this prize at the small car rate.
The rental agreement satisfied the accountants, but after a few snide comments in a session I facilitated, I decided to address the issue straight up. “Listen,” I said. “Can anyone here show me how to drive this thing? I got it because it was the only car left over, and I don’t even know how to get it into reverse. I won’t be able to get out of my parking place tonight, and even if I do, I’m afraid I’ll kill myself or get arrested.”
I also managed to mention that my own car at that time was a 9-year old Volkswagen bus, and I could see the participants’ expressions changing. At the break, I actually got two volunteers to take me out to the parking lot and give me “instructions.” I allowed them demonstrate their sports car skills while I watched and learned.
About a year later, when speaking to a computer users conference in Houston, almost the same thing happened. This time I was given a white Lincoln Continental, which felt like driving a battleship. My liaison, Wyatt, saw me arrive, so I was ready for the same treatment. Luckily for me, before I could apologize for the car, Wyatt started admiring it. It seemed that, to him, it was only appropriate that his “famous writer” should be driving a giant Texas status symbol. I suspect that the only thing that would have raised me higher in Wyatt’s esteem was a pair of longhorns on the hood.
And then there was the trip to Atlanta when I did get the small car I wanted, only to have the conference manager suggest that I get a “better” car the next time. He didn’t want his participants to think he was hiring a cheap keynote speaker.
In other words, it’s not easy to know in advance what people will envy, what they will admire, or what they’ll hold in contempt. If you dress up for a publisher’s lunch, your editors might think you’re lording your wealth over them. But, if you dress down, they might think it’s your freedom you’re flaunting. As an outsider, you’re balanced on a thin edge, and you could fall off either side.
So, do I change my clothes, my car, my accommodations, in order to nip envy in the bud? Well, because of the different cultures and different individuals, I don’t think I could figure out in advance what’s the right thing to do. So, I just try to please myself. And I keep my eyes and ears open and let my contacts take the lead. I’ve never tried to present myself as perfect, so I can almost always correct the situation if I make a bad mistake.
In the end, you never really know if the other person is distressed by their perception of your well-being, your success as a writer. After all, my story wasn’t about Joni’s envy, but about my perception that her envy was unjustified. Perhaps she would have actually enjoyed making 18 overseas trips in one year. Or perhaps she didn’t envy me at all, and I was merely telling myself that to help me survive the IRS audit.
It’s the same with fellow writers. Sometimes, less successful writers seem to be envious of my sales record. Because I don’t want them to envy me, I sometimes feel I should stop writing and allow them to catch up. But I have no idea how they truly feel. Quite likely, I’m simply projecting my own envy of J.K. Rowling and other writing billionaires.
I thought about all this recently when I was back in Texas, where everyone wears boots—not the hiking variety, but the riding variety—while driving their Lincolns. Wyatt (his real name is George, but he likes to be called Wyatt) asked me if we didn’t wear cowboy boots in New Mexico. I assured Wyatt that we have lots of cowboys in New Mexico (not as many as in Texas, I hastened to add), and that most of them do wear boots. I explained, however, that although I love the look of cowboy boots, whenever I try to wear them, I have to see my podiatrist to get my feet fixed. “I envy you,” I said, “being able to wear those beautiful rattlesnake boots.”
I always assumed that all cowboys had perpetually sore feet, but Wyatt insisted that his rattlesnakes were the most comfortable shoes he’d ever worn. He did, however, tell me that he understood about sore feet—because whenever he tried to wear hiking boots, his feet blistered.
Gerald M. Weinberg is a member of Book View Café and blogs here more or less regularly. His science fiction novel “First Stringers: Eyes That Do Not See” by Gerald M. Weinberg is serialized for free on the front page rotation.
For more about him and his fiction please visit his bookshelf here on BVC: http://www.bookviewcafe.com/index.php/Gerald-M.-Weinberg/ Or, visit his personal web page, http://geraldmweinberg.com