Remember the 2012 Olympics? When London was paved with sunshine and we won gold medals as easily as falling off a log? Well, that was the last time I watched any sport. Every four years is enough for me. But I remember one thing most of all: the way commentators always urged the runners to ‘stay in their lane’. This meant, I think, that they should focus on their own race rather than trying to beat the person next to them.
I am very bad at staying in my lane. On a pretty much daily basis, I compare myself to someone else, and I feel bad. This can be about anything – how nice their hair is, how delicious their lunch looks, how artfully they’ve arranged their scented candles – but mostly it’s about my career. This may be because my Twitter and Facebook are saturated with book news. There’s always someone posting about their latest success – their sales rank, the awards they’re up for, the reviews they’ve had – and I will inevitably spot it and start to feel bad. A toxic combination of anxiety- should I have this thing? – jealousy – why don’t I have this thing, what’s wrong with me? – and self-doubt. Some days it feels like a clamour of voices all shouting how great we are.
I suspect I’ve always been this way. At primary school, I once brought home a friend’s drawing instead of my own because it was neater. Before I was published I used to scrutinise the announcement of every deal, trying to work out if the author was younger or more successful than me. Even now, there are people I feel are doing better than me, and one glance at Facebook can be enough to send me into a slump.
I know this is stupid and self-destructive, and I would very much like to find a way of racing against myself and myself only. Of not looking into those other lanes. I don’t know what injuries people have, or what training they’ve done, or if they’ve been supping on book-enhancing drugs (is this a thing? Coffee. It’s coffee, isn’t it). I often tell my students not to compare themselves with each other, as everyone writes in a different way and at a different pace, and people are at not at the same stage when the start work. This is clearly hypocritical of me, since I can’t do it myself.
What I would tell myself, if I was someone else, is to look forward at the finish line at all times, and go as fast and as well as I can, and not worry about pitting myself against the other runners. That’s what throws you off your stride, and before you know it you’ve twisted your ankle and you’re out of the race. So I say this to myself more than anyone else: stay in your lane.