Productive envy


Dear Artist,

Recently, Margaret Atwood suggested that writers probably envy no more than other people. “It’s just that they write about it more, because they’re writers,” she said. “Fairy tales are full of envy.”

Napoleon Crossing the Alps, 1800 Oil on canvas 259 x 221 cm by Jacques-Louis David (1748 - 1845)

Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass, 1801
Oil on canvas
259 x 221 cm
by Jacques-Louis David (1748 – 1845)

I posted the interview on our family text thread. My big brother Dave, a professional musician and music producer replied right away: “Substitute ‘musician’, ‘director’, ‘artist’, ‘ad exec’ or ‘television personality’ for ‘writer’ and this rings the bells loud and clear.” He’d even given me a less shameful name for it years ago – instead of the word “envy,” he used “doomspiration” – that feeling of melancholy, of longing, of inadequacy, even rage – when you have an aesthetic experience you wish you would have somehow mustered yourself. Given the circumstances – the aforementioned professionals belonging to the text thread are all deep in the vortex of mid-life striving – Dave’s remarks spoke for all of us. No one else replied. “We envy those who are near us in time, place, age, or reputation…those whose possession of or success in a thing is a reproach to us,” wrote Aristotle in his 4th century BCE’s Rhetoric. “These are our neighbors and equals; for it is clear that it is our own fault we have missed the good thing in question.”

The Death of Marat, 1793 Oil on canvas 165 x 128 cm by Jacques-Louis David

The Death of Marat, 1793
Oil on canvas
165 x 128 cm
by Jacques-Louis David

As ugly as envy may feel and as much as we may try to suffocate its embers with Buddhist-like detachment, or the rejection of some misguided, primordial entitlement to our own recognition, or a false-god motivation in the first place, envy is perhaps just an unpleasant interloper as part of the clinging to any ambition – creative or otherwise. Instead, try just making art. “We didn’t expect to be successful in popular terms. If you have low expectations, everything else is a surprise,” Atwood remembered of her first major literary triumph, after 12 years of minor gains. “Whereas if you have really high expectations and suddenly, as you graduate from creative-writing school, the six-figure advance does not materialize — that’s when you get resentful.” If success does find you, don’t be what Atwood calls a “jelly bean.” Be gracious, and temper your exploding, inner joy with some sensitivity for your comrades still on the field.

According to Atwood, now 82, it all softens, anyway – you only need to grow old. “Your old enemies may become pals because there’s only the two of you left who can remember the Dark Ages,” she wrote. “Before there were computers. Or pantyhose. Or plastic bags.”

The Intervention of the Sabine Women, 1799 Oil on canvas 385 x 522 cm by Jacques-Louis David

The Intervention of the Sabine Women, 1799
Oil on canvas
385 x 522 cm
by Jacques-Louis David



PS: “The heavier crop is ever in others’ fields.” (Ovid, 43 BC-AD 17)

Esoterica: I searched Google for the difference between “envy” and “jealousy.” Merriam and Webster, those productive rivals who finally joined forces in 1847, differentiate the terms this way: “Envy means discontented longing for someone else’s advantages. Jealousy means unpleasant suspicion, or apprehension of rivalship.” “The good luck of others and their unwarranted success can make people crazy, induce voluntary isolation, or motivate in a positive way,” wrote my Dad in his 2010 letter to you about envy. The best antidote for both creative and professional envy, he advised, was to get to know the apparently talented ones, including their faults and weaknesses, and to work harder to make better work in the face of strivers who appear luckier. So ashamed are we of envy that psychology professor at the University of Toronto, Paul Bloom, who had taught a seminar at Yale on the seven deadly sins, said this to Jennifer Senior for her recent story on friendship in mid-life for the Atlantic: “Envy,” – what Socrates called “the ulcer of the soul,” – “was the one sin students never boasted about.”

Mars Being Disarmed by Venue and the Three Graces, 1824 Oil on canvas 308 x 265 cm by Jacques Louis David

Mars Being Disarmed by Venus and the Three Graces, 1824
Oil on canvas
308 x 265 cm
by Jacques Louis David

If you’re still plagued by it and need a redirect, there’s always, in addition to my tips above, revenge. And it can be done in art. “If you look at the beginning of my book Negotiating With the Dead: A Writer on Writing, I tried to look for motives [for writing], and they ranged from “to justify the ways of God to man” to “getting back at the people who were mean to me in high school.” And there’s no reason why it can’t be both.” (Margaret Atwood to Jennifer Senior, in Margaret Atwood on Envy and Friendship in Old Age)

Have you considered a Premium Artist Listing?  With each letter, an artist is featured at the bottom of this page. The Premium Artist Listings are a means of connecting artist subscribers through their work. Proceeds from each listing contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys. 

“Nothing sharpens sight like envy.” (Thomas Fuller)



  1. Comparing the art and apparent success of others with our own leaves the door wide open for the very human pangs of jealousy or envy. But pangs can be dealt with once recognized. Like your dad said, Sara. Work harder to make better work. I’d add to that, appreciate your own art and efforts. We are too close to our own art sometimes to be able to say, my art has great value, or, I’m getting there… Our own artwork is like the snowflake world. Truly unique, and a very personal expression, one of a kind. Don’t try to be like someone else. Find out why your unique vision is a precious gift!

    • So true. As a self-taught artist, it took me decades to understand this simple and obvious Truth.
      “By being yourself, you put something beautiful into the world that was not there before.”
      ( Marc Chernoff)

  2. FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) is the new slang word for envy. The ego thinks it can do better than the Universe in knowing what we need before we do!
    We see so much more nowadays to be envious about. The computer has out-stripped the television as the ‘electronic vampire’.

  3. Wisdom with age is something to admire. I do feel that our extreme envies, misguided ambitions, jealousies and other burdens of life, that seem inevitable to avoid, may at least be “softened with age” as Atwood puts it.

    Sara, I appreciate this letter and sharing the word “Doomspiration” which implies the opposite of inspiration. So I ask: Which will I choose?

    I believe seeking inspiration is the antidote, and creating art is a means in helping us understand how grace can work in our lives. I find wisdom in it too.

    Keep on writing, I’m envious :) …in a good way, as I wish you more and more good things.

    • Hmmm. I have always thought of envy as having a positive connotation compared to its negative cousin jealousy. And I will continue to think that way about envy, as it is the “softer” , even appreciative face of that duality. The psychologists got it wrong – lol.

  4. I am suspicious Sara that to get the best out of us requires at least a little competition and envy some of the times. This is what takes us back to our creative endeavours with new vigour as your dad mentioned. Healthy envy gently nudges us forward. It doesn’t consume us. Sometimes my envy comes out as wishes… I wish I had a show in a museum or I wish my work was in that major bank’s collection like so and so’s painting. But wishes, if they are to happen, need a clear vision and a measurable action plan of steps or at the very least lightly held intentions that might possibly contribute towards the success of the wish (or the thing I envy). If I start thinking these wishes through to an action plan and begin to think – I don’t really want to actually DO any of these things, there is usually not much left of my envy and I move on to another wish. If do I still want to move forward once I have visualized a plan or intention, I find I am excited and motivated and there is little room left for envy. Because of this approach I find I love to have people in my life that are better than I am in most aspects. For example, they might be generally smarter or have studied philosophy or physics or something else I know little about. They can maybe love or play more easily. They might know how to do something as a master in their area that I am still learning. In this way, success becomes little points of celebration on a life long adventure for which a pinch of envy is just a touch of spice in the overall flavour of my creative practice.

  5. I have a close friend and creative ally who practices Buddhism and has for many years. I have no doubt that he would disagree strongly with Sara’s use of the word “detachment”. He would probably say that a more accurate choice of word in characterizing his beliefs and practices would be ‘acceptance’. He might also add, if pressed on the subject, that “detachment” implies ‘a sense of distance’ and that Sara’s grasp of Buddhism is ‘incomplete’. That is nobody’s fault. It’s just how things are. If one feels *envy* with regard to someone else’s productivity or imagination, that’s much like saying: I wish I had thought of that. If that feeling becomes *jealousy*, it merely suggests that they never would have. One day, two summers ago, I was walking along Queen West in Toronto and overheard two young women walking behind me, having an animated conversation, rather loudly. After hearing one particular remark, I looked behind me out of sheer curiosity. The remark I heard was this: I don’t know what I want to do with my life, but I do want to be famous.

    • Ask your Buddhist friend and ally about envy and jealousy as well. I think you will find Jealousy as one of the 5 poisons. Wouldn’t it be much better if we rejoiced in others success?

  6. When I feel myself drifting over to envy, I stop it short with blessings to the artist for having the time, talent and organization to carry off whatever he/she did. And, now, we (the audience) is blessed to see or hear what the or she has been able to capture from the realm of creation.

    • Absolutely spot on for me.
      My envy of my fellow artists is absolute, pure joy and amazement of their talent, sight, successes and energy.
      Energy, which is quickly disappearing as I approach my later years.

  7. Years ago, after art school and striving to find myself through my art, I’d often see other successful artists with ideas similar to my own. I’d get a tight knot in my solar plexus and I’d realize this was my ego manifesting envy and jealousy, and I didn’t like those feelings. I have since softened with age, and now when I Google those same successful artists, I am happy for them all these years later. I’m happy also with where I am now which is: JOMO–Joy of Missing Out (feeling content with staying in–and painting!).

  8. As Petula Clark sang, Just be happy with what you’ve got! We’re all individuals and we all learn and create in our own individual ways. We need to honour that and be grateful we’re doing it to begin with. We also never know where these other artists we envy started or their training or life circumstances. So many things differentiate all of us. We need to focus on what we can do. And do it! Life is short.

  9. Aaaah, this one is definitely a trigger for all of us who are human beings, nevermind artists. It isn’t until lately that I have recognized the pitfalls I endured over time due to envy and jealousy. I’m not sure which side of the coin I was on in lots of experiences in the past, but I remember how I felt, and how insecure vulnerability played a part in my slashing of probably okay paintings. I was one who if had a painting declined in a show, it got slashed. I was one who if weathering derogatory comments probably born out of someone else’s envy and jealousy, I believed them, and retreated into darkness riding out a stall in creativity. I never understood how some claimed competition was healthy done in a friendly way. Perhaps I am just over sensitive ( that HSP kinda thang ) but those years in the past playing the art game in juried shows and one upping each other in a small town wannabe elite club has left me with a lot of bitter trigger memories. Yes, that was part of my learning curve, and I can’t say I learned nothing from that path that was good. What I do now is a product of what I lived over the past 40 or so years. I ask myself often, if I didn’t go the route I took in life, would I be at my easel producing what I produce now? Probably not. Like a sponge I gained knowledge and inspiration from others who struck my envy cord in a good way. It’s all part of life. I do love this age thing, tho, not competing with anyone but myself. Trying to get better than the last painting I did. I can handle my own derogatory comments, I understand her bad moods. :) As always, thank you, Sara for the great thought provoking letter!

    • Mary Ann, your post really struck a chord with me! You said what I had been trying to say so much better than what I actually said. I’m also HSP and spent years “playing the art game in juried shows and one upping each other in a small town wannabe elite club that has left me with a lot of bitter trigger memories.”-BINGO-you really nailed it. I spent years painting and showing my watercolors with a watercolor society. After moving away, I saw a watercolor painting in a published book of national watercolorists that looked almost identical to one I had in a show. And the artist was a member of the watercolor society I had just left. At first, I was bitter, but now I have gleaned two important nuggets of wisdom from this: someone liked it enough to steal it, and it was good enough to end up getting published.

  10. Thank you for the images of the David paintings you included with this thoughtful letter. So many layers of envy and jealousy to contemplate in looking at the subject matter. And the luscious quality of David’s artistry. What a perfect way to illustrate the topic.

  11. Deirdre Ní Argáin on

    This arrived at the perfect time for me. I have just finished a painting about artistic envy and regret! I’m not sure the painting works but I really needed to make it. It’s a text based work- there’s a random shape made by pouring on a natural linen background- over this the word THAT is stencilled over and over again so that it fills the space and over this again I have written graffiti style- I Wish I Had Painted. I envy very little in life except when I go to an exhibition and see work I wish I’d done or ideas iv had brought to realisation by someone else. This made me realise my true desire in life is to make art- so I think envy is the flip side of desire. Thanks for the letter and all the great comments.

  12. I was once told Envy and Jealousy had somehow swapped definitions over the centuries. Envy is listed as a sin and jealousy is not… I think caught in the old definition of the words. The difference is attitude. Where one looks at the other with a desire for what the other has, say a Jaguar, he/she goes out and finds a way to procure one him/herself. The other looks at the Jaguar and puts sugar in the tank. One inspires, the other is malicious. I enjoy what I do. I celebrate with my fellow creatives and friends. We move on together.

  13. Comparison is the thief of joy?
    For myself, I’m on the 600 year plan, as a now dead artist said. It didn’t take that long for him to become famous after he left this mortal coil. Make plans to keep your work secure, like Hilma af Klimt.
    We are all painting for the future.

Leave A Reply

Featured Workshop

Uncorking Your Creative Core: Paint, Write & Walk in Mexico
March 21, 2022 to March 27, 2022

CDLN 6Uncorking Your Creative Core: Paint, Write & Walk in Mexico

March 21-27, 2022

San Miguel de Allende

Painting Mentor – Amit Janco: Artist, Author, Labyrinth Designer, Founder of Heartshops and Retreat on Your Feet (Creativity and Walking Retreats)

Join this 7-day journey through self-expression to unleash your bottled-up creativity, with a brush in hand – and openness in your heart. Calling non-artists too! Each day, you’ll stand up to paint; yes, you’ll be painting on your feet, and moving about – thereby activating the brain, the body and ALL senses. No need to come with a plan; watch the colors and brushstrokes come alive; and see the magic and mysteries unfold, as you greet your square of paper anew, every day. Our accommodations and studio are in an enchanting former bordello, just a stone’s throw away from San Miguel’s historic center, with its gardens, cobblestoned alleys and marvelous colonial architecture. Inspiration abounds!

Details at Gulf Islands Afternoon 48 x 36 inch oil on canvas by Terrill Welch

Featured Artist

I am a landscape painter exposing the mystery in an ordinary day.


Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

Subscribe and receive the Twice-Weekly letter on art. You’ll be joining a worldwide community of artists.
Subscription is free.