“Another writer in Essex… good luck!”
These words were muttered, slightly sarcastically, by one of the team I’d just employed to design and build a website for my fledgling solo venture as a writer, back in 2016.
I chose to take them as a joke, but they also worked as a wake-up call. I’d been so gripped with the combined fear and euphoria of leaving full-time employment, that I hadn’t thought about there being other writers in Essex.
Or anywhere else, for that matter.
It’s fashionable to love your competitors these days; we don’t see many of the cut-throat, Cola-wars-style corporate antics of yore. Burger King even released a treacly ad last year, in which they all but begged us to get our junk food fix from anyone but them.
Meanwhile, I see my competitors more as awkward acquaintances than lovers. It’s not them, though, it’s me.
Much of the awkwardness is down to my feeling not-quite-good-enough most of the time, and the boiling envy I tend to feel towards anyone who a) has been a mildly successful writer for longer than I have, or b) is better at writing than I am.
I will often try to sidestep all this envy and insecurity by pretending I’m not at all bothered about the presence of competitors (from the conversations I have with clients and other freelancers, I suspect I’m not the only one who does this).
Recently, an agency client put me up for a lucrative business writing job against three other writers he knew, but I didn’t. When he asked me to send over my writer’s CV to pitch with the rest, I prioritised my quirkiest, most blatantly non-corporate work, and buried all the ‘normal’ stuff at the bottom.
Inevitably, I was rejected for the business writing job, and I told myself this was because the client didn’t want to work with someone so flagrantly creative. Deep down, though, I wonder if I was just scared of being compared with other writers and not making the grade, so I put myself out of the running first.
When I’m feeling particularly insecure, I’ll catch myself unfairly criticising my competitors, or writing off their success as being down to birth or luck; whichever theory I can squeeze the best to fit.
I might also compare myself unfavourably with other writers; particularly the ones who humblebrag about making “a six-figure profit” on LinkedIn and the like (I’ve only made a six-figure profit after I’ve deleted the decimal point).
While I’m always disappointed in myself for these mean-spirited smearing sessions and negative comparisons, I’m slowly getting better at recognising what they’re trying to tell me.
Sometimes, they remind me about why I wanted to be a self-employed writer in the first place. What mattered was spending my time on my own terms, doing something I’ve loved ever since I could hold a pen.
It still does.
They can highlight areas I want to personally improve on, or what type of work I want to do next (note: if I’m really scathing about someone, it generally means I want to be them).
I’m also forced to think about what I want most from my career. I’m not after powerful business growth and six-figure sums, but continuous learning and a genuine sense of freedom.
When I got home from that fateful meeting with the web design team, I Googled all those other writers in Essex, then indulged in a moment of panic. Why was I bothering, when there were so many writers out there already?
Ultimately, I bothered because becoming a writer just felt like the most natural thing for me to do, other writers or no other writers.
“In reality, there is no such thing as competition,” a wise coach once told me. “We all occupy our own individual space”.
It’s a lesson I’m slowly learning.
(If you’d like to write personally open content and test your boldest ideas in a safe, private space, my Wondrous Writing Hub opens its virtual doors on 19th January. Find out more and sign up here).