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Most people would say that envy is an unfortunate downside of the human condition. To be envious is to be human — it’s just a part of who we are. That’s a real shame, their thinking goes, because envy is bad. It doesn’t get us anywhere, and just drags us down.
While parts of this may very well be true, I don’t buy into this blanket statement. I would argue that there are multiple types of envies, and some are better than others. Furthermore, I like to deal with the world the way that it is, rather than the way that I want it to be. If we’re envious beings, we should learn how to accept this fact, and use envy to our advantage. We shouldn’t just categorize it as “bad” and try to ignore it, but rather, we should guard against its harmful effects and leverage its positive effects. Let’s explore.
When I was in fourth grade, one of my friends came to school wearing the latest Air Jordan sneakers, hot off the shelves of Foot Locker (back when people bought their shoes almost exclusively at the mall). I was mesmerized. They were things of beauty. But soon — as in three-seconds-soon — my fascination wore off and a different emotion overcame me. Envy. I wanted those sneakers. Why couldn’t I have them? Why did I have to wear the imitation brand Jordans (my mom tried to convince me they were as cool as Jordan’s — they weren’t) instead of the cultural icons that adorned my buddy’s feet? I could think of nothing else. My envy occupied my mind for what seemed like days.
I’ve since learned that being envious of other people’s possessions is a useless and painful endeavor, and neither serves the envious individual or the one being envied. Not only have I discovered that I prefer experiences over possessions, and material things don’t matter to me like they once did, but more importantly, I’ve learn that one’s possessions are the result of one’s beliefs and one’s actions. To be effective we need to focus on the cause.
Thus, I’ve concluded that being envious of material possessions is bad, and downright silly. So that’s not the kind of good envy I’m speaking about here.
Fast forward to one year after college, when I was 24 and struggling as a first-time entrepreneur. I was driving home from my office in Las Vegas when I received a call from a college classmate and friend of mine. We had shared many experiences together — many of them arduous and unpleasant — as biomedical engineering students at Columbia University. In that way, we were similar. But on this call, it was clear we had become different, or at least his situation had become very different than mine. While I decided to start a company immediately upon graduation, he decided to go and work on Wall Street for an investment banking firm. On this call he excitedly shared how he had just received a six-figure annual bonus. Yep, I said that right. That was just his bonus. He was ecstatic. I wasn’t. I was experiencing the opposite emotion, though I tried to conceal it.
While he was thinking about his upcoming spending spree in the Hamptons, I was thinking about another type of six-figures. That is, the six-figures of credit card debt I was in as a result of funding my start-up business with next-to no capital. I wanted to be happy for my buddy, but I couldn’t muster it. All I could do was feel sorry for myself, and envious that I wasn’t in his financial situation. Just like in fourth grade, envy (and some sorrow) overcame me.
I’ve since learned that being envious of other people’s situations, and other people’s successes, is a fast path to getting nowhere. It’s especially insane when you’re envious of the results someone else has experienced when you purposefully chose a different path than they did. For instance, it makes no sense for me to be envious of my buddy’s financial rewards resulting from him working 100 hour weeks on Wall Street when I consciously chose not to do that. Different paths yield different results. It’s crazy to yearn for the results of a different path when the path you’ve chosen won’t produce those results. In order to achieve results, you must choose the right path!
My friend, author Ryan Holiday, explained this very well when I interviewed him on our Awesome Office podcast recently. He came into our office at SnackNation — an office snack delivery service – and spoke about how it’s insane to be envious of the millions of fans a pop star has when you chose the path of being a classical musician. If you wanted the fans, why didn’t you choose a different path? Why didn’t you choose the pop route over the classical route? That’s like practicing basketball every day and being upset that you’re not amazing at football. That’s like eating pizza and cheeseburgers every day and being disappointed that your friend who eats salads and kale is skinnier than you.
As we’ve outlined thus far, being envious of other people’s possessions, or their situations, is futile. These are bad envies, and won’t take you anywhere positive.
So what is the one type of envy that is good? I believe it’s the envy over someone else’s actions you want to take, but simply haven’t. The actions that will produce the situations and possessions that you crave, but that you’ve been neglecting. This is the envy that serves you well and it’s the envy you should focus on.
Who out there is committing to the actions, day in and day out, that you know you should too to get to where you want to go? When people are doing the things you know you should do but aren’t, you should have a fire inside of you, and the fire should motivate you to commit to those actions. It’s not about others’ successes, or their possessions, or their status. It’s about the work that they do. Focus on the actions of others, and allow them to serve as motivators for you to do the same.
This isn’t the only envy that can serve you well. There is a similar and even better envy you can harness to your advantage. That is, being envious of the person you could be, but aren’t. What do I mean? I was once told that the most disheartening thing would be to meet the version of myself that represented what I could be, but am not.
Wow. How rough would that be? Can you imagine meeting the ideal you? The version of you that didn’t allow fear and limitations to hold you back. The version of you who committed to making small, slight, continuous changes and actually followed through with them. The version of you who took pride in giving everything they had every day, and knew that this alone was enough.
Over time, this envy of other people’s actions, and this envy of a better you, will actually stop becoming envy and instead will turn into inspiration. Inspiration that you can give more, that you can become more, and that you can become more fulfilled purely by committing to and executing on the actions you were destined to complete. When you do this — focus intensely on your actions with detachment towards the results — you’ll find that envy or jealousy no longer exists.
When you get to this place, you realize that other people’s successes don’t take away from you. To the contrary, they serve you. Success breeds success. It’s not you versus them. It’s you and them.
When you take on this thinking, envy fades away and the abundance mindset takes over. That’s when the real magic begins.