It was a chilly day in November and I remember it well, the fog creeping in over the seawall and the air so heavy with water that everything felt saturated with it even though it wasn’t actually raining. The dull weather stood in sharp contrast to my bright mood; I was on top of the world that day, developing an identity and a career. I was young and competent and unafraid, because I had seen my own potential, and I wasn’t afraid to grab for it.
She came to my house uninvited, trailing along behind someone else, and promptly took time to comment on my house (‘surprisingly clean for a young person’) and my person (‘I wasn’t expecting you to be so fat’) and then she promptly delved into what I did. And I told her, and a little sneer started to creep across her face as she proceeded to tell me how to do my job. A job, I note, that she had failed at before, forcing her to transition to a different career, and then another, and another.
She, a failed writer, wanted to tell me how to be a writer.
And I sat there and took it as long as I could, because I believe in being polite to guests, even uninvited ones, although I made a private note to have it out with the person who had invited her, but eventually I snapped.
‘Pardon me,’ I said, ‘but I’m fairly confident I know how to do my own job.’
She reeled back as though I’d slapped her on the face and then pissed on her mother, and stomped out of my house, huffy at her reception. Typical, she said to the person who’d invited her, ‘of a young person.’
There is a thing about being young and confident in yourself, let alone successful and respected by at least some of the people in your field, that some people seem to find deeply and inherently enraging and offensive. You could attribute the roots of this attitude to many, many things. It’s not about a unilateral sense of the older generation being jealous and fearing that their stars have set, for some of my greatest mentors and helpers have been older than me, some far, far older. This is not an age divide, but something more complex.
There’s a particular kind of person who seems to feel threatened by competence and self-assurance and it took me a long time to learn that this kind of person was incompetent and not self-assured, and that the problem lay with them, and not with me. Or with all the other people these people strive to tear down and make feel tiny and insignificant; the thought that a person might be confident and powerful while still being unafraid to turn to appropriate mentors for help and advice is disturbing. The idea that someone might, in fact, be a human being rather than an object, is threatening.
I made the mistake, that day, of thinking that I was a human being despite my age, and of believing that as someone in the beginnings of establishing an actual career, I, too, had a voice of authority. And she attempted to put me soundly in my place, to tell me I had no idea what I was doing; she was especially offended by the fact that I was choosing to use my time in different ways than she had done during her failed career, that I understood new media and the shifting landscape for writers. Let alone that I wanted to dedicate part of my work to mentoring and helping others; she was shocked and appalled that I would volunteer to help teenagers work on college admissions essays.
‘What’s in that for you,’ she said, and I stared back at her blankly.
I realised only later that her comment summed up the problem with her attitude. It wasn’t that she thought I shouldn’t be giving my work away for free, but that she fundamentally didn’t understand why I might want to support younger writers on their own path to success, just as others had supported me. She had bought into the dog eat dog, crabs in a pot model and she firmly believed that helping anyone advance would only ultimately hurt her.
We all like to see our friends get ahead…but not too far ahead.
We are raised in a culture where we are taught, and trained, to eat each other. Where success on anyone’s part automatically means failure on yours because there is only room for one, and thus you must spend much of your career attempting to tear other people apart, clawing your way to the top, because of course only one person can fit at the top, and that person must be you. The idea of mentoring, of supporting, of even helping people take advantage of opportunities that once helped you, is utterly alien, because that doesn’t support the ethos: You must eat each other to grow stronger.
The larger you grow on the flesh of those you have eaten, the more powerful you have become, and the less accountable you need to be. The less you need to give back, because you have already taken what you need, and in what kind of absurd parody of life would you want to turn around and give any of that away? It would be patent foolishness. There is always someone to be bigger and better than. Keep your eyes on the prize.
She believed that I had no worth as a young person, and more than that, she believed that I needed to be torn into tiny shreds so that I wouldn’t even consider the idea that I might have worth. She wanted to make sure I didn’t infect other youth with my dangerous ideas: yes, you can do this, because those ideas would automatically mean more crabs in the pot, inevitable fighting for scraps and crumbs. She wanted to make sure I understood that I was not a human being, only a pawn on her chessboard.
It didn’t occur to her that us crabs working together could tip the pot over and run free, that instead of scrabbling for stale crumbs, we could take the whole cake. I wonder, still, if she always felt that way, or if she learned that through decades of being snapped at by others, developed her defensive shell and sense of obligation to eat others because she thought it was the only way to evolve in that environment. And I wonder, still, why we keep teaching people this, that they must attack each other to be ‘successful,’ that their careers hinge on stomping other people down, that true mentoring and support are bad because all you’re doing is raising up the crab who will eventually yank you down from the edge of the pot.
Where is the justice here?
Why, particularly, are we teaching a generation of women and girls that this is the way to ‘get ahead’ in life, by embedding it in the very terminology we use to describe success. To get ahead. To get ahead of whom? Or what? To rise to the top. All of these phrases position other human beings as mere obstacles to be crushed and climbed over, and do not exactly promote a culture of solidarity. They do not encourage people to work cooperatively, to exchange and trade ideas fairly and evenly, with respect and attribution where warranted.
And this system also positions elders as something to be pushed out of the way; the demand that older people ‘step aside’ to make way for the next generation, that they retire instead of eating up precious jobs, that they stop pretending they’re relevant. There’s a contempt for the old just as there is for the young, an attitude that they have nothing to teach or offer, that they cannot help people develop their trades and create skills they might use to succeed in life. Instead, elders are to be consumed and discarded, knocked down from the top to make way for someone else to take their place.
All of these systems are structured on a larger capitalist model that commodifies human beings as products, and the things they create as more objects to be bought, sold, and traded. That pits people against each other as content producers in a competitive market, rather than creators who might want to step outside the market or change the way the game is played. The very idea of needing a career and needing to be successful to be a human being, to amount to something in life, is rooted in ideals that I do not necessarily share.
This destructive social model lies at the core of ‘having it all,’ as though worth can be measured in the having rather than in the sharing.
Why must people be taught to buy success at the cost of human lives?