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Weekly 3: Managing your envy

Summary: Work with your nature. Focus on your own improvement. Use envy to identify your interests. (

Idea Journal Weekly 3

April 21 · Issue #83 · View online
We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Work with your nature. Focus on your own improvement. Use envy to identify your interests. (~7 min read)

#1. Compare yourself to those who are less fortunate
Author Robert Greene writes in his book The Laws of Human Nature that most of us deny ever experiencing envy.
But as Greene points out: “You are simply not being honest with yourself.”
As social animals, our need to compare ourselves to others, and the tendency to feel unsettled by those who are superior to us in some area we care about, is ingrained in our nature.
To illustrate his point, he recommends conducting the following experiment: the next time you hear or read about the sudden success of someone in your field, notice the inevitable feeling of wanting that same success, and the subsequent sense of hostility, however subtle, you then feel toward that person.
Greene notes that because this reaction is natural, there’s no reason to feel guilty about it.
In fact, monitoring such reactions helps “slowly transform our comparing inclination into something positive, productive, and prosocial.”
Greene suggests engaging in “downward comparisons” to help this process. You normally focus on those who seem to have more than you, but it’s often wiser to look at those who have less.
There are plenty of people who are in worse positions: they live in harsher environments, deal with more threats to their lives, and have deeper levels of insecurity about the future. You probably have friends in such positions.
The objective of this exercise is both to stimulate empathy for those who are less fortunate, and also to increase appreciation for what you actually possess: “Gratitude is a muscle that requires exercise or it will atrophy.”
#2. Envy acts like a boomerang
As you enter your recently promoted colleague’s office, you notice a picture of his beautiful family in their new vacation home. He casually adjusts his custom suit and mentions his upcoming board meeting and speech in Davos. On one hand, you want to feel genuinely happy for him and celebrate his successes. On the other, you hope he falls into a crevasse in the Alps.
Professors Tanya Menon and Leigh Thompson write in the Harvard Business Review that envy can be particularly harmful in an organizational context: it damages relationships, disrupts teams, and undermines overall performance.
One reason for this is that people tend to distance themselves from those they envy. While friendly competitors challenge each other, people who are envious have difficulty learning from and collaborating with other people, which can lead to dysfunction and oversights.
Menon and Thompson came across the following examples in their research:
  • At one technology company, managers who felt threatened by another group’s idea simply ignored it.
  • In an investment bank, a senior banker was so envious of a colleague’s position and power that instead of talking to that colleague directly, he communicated through a go-between.
But as Menon and Thompson point out, envy is most harmful to the person who feels it: “When you’re obsessed with someone else’s success, your self-respect suffers, and you may neglect or even sabotage your own performance and possibly your career.”
They acknowledge that it is the rare person whose automatic response is to feel glad when they meet someone better looking, richer, or smarter.
However, it is possible to “quiet the cruel voice of envy.”
Menon and Thompson have found that the following 2 techniques help people replace their envy with more productive habits of mind:
1. Use envy as a tool for self-improvement: Identify those circumstances and qualities in others that trigger your envy, and then ask yourself if your feelings reveal insecurities about what you’re lacking. For example: Do you envy people who learn new skills more quickly, make more money, or receive more praise and recognition?
You can then begin to tame envious feelings before they turn into counterproductive responses, and use those triggers to pinpoint areas for self-improvement.
2. Focus on your own progress: Comparing yourself to other people can be motivational, but taken too far it can lead to envy. Instead, compare your present self to your past self. Mapping the details of your own progress over time can increase your self-confidence, and help to reduce your resentment of others.
#3. Your envy and obsessions are revealing
In an interview on The Knowledge Project podcast, author and lecturer Susan Cain says that you can use an ugly emotion like envy as a guide to identify your genuine interests.
Cain tells the story of how envy helped to illuminate her own career path.
Before she wrote her book Quiet and became a well-known speaker, Cain worked as a corporate lawyer. When she met up with fellow lawyers, they would often talk about some colleague who just got to argue a brief before the Supreme Court, or had received some other legal accolade.
While the other lawyers were clearly envious of their successful colleague, Cain didn’t feel any envy – she was genuinely happy for the person.
At first, she congratulated herself for being so generous and not feeling envious, but she eventually realized that this wasn’t the right interpretation: “It’s just that I don’t want these things myself.”
It’s not that Cain was free of envy. At the time, the people she envied were those who were doing what she herself is doing now: writing and giving lectures about issues that are important to her.
As she puts it, “It’s the things you envy that point you in the direction of what you really want for yourself.”
There’s a useful corollary to the above lesson. When you find yourself obsessed with a person, that obsession is often coming from the same place: “I think you become obsessed with a person when that person has things that you wish to have in your life and you don’t have.”
Quote of the Week
“But, O, how bitter a thing it is to look into happiness through another man’s eyes!”
- William Shakespeare in his play As You Like It
Idea Journal
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