Deflecting Envy – How The Beatles Did It

“Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.”” – Gore Vidal

As you become more successful, the people who know you will change in two ways. First, they will begin to think of you as smarter than they do now. Second, they will sometimes resent your good fortune.

You will probably notice the first – your new intellectual status. Friends will seek your advice and treat it seriously. Siblings will come to you for help. Colleagues and competitors will nod in studied contemplation when you make an offhand remark about business.

Well, not always. But it will happen – and you’re probably going to like it.

You won’t notice – at least most of the time – the resentment your accomplishments will stir. It’s an unfortunate reality. Envy is as common as crabgrass, but it’s harder to spot. You may be kidded now and then about your financial status. You may hear self-deprecatory comparisons (“It isn’t big money to you, but . . .”). Every once in a great while, you’ll be stung by a zinger. I remember being lambasted for my penchant for expensive cigar lighters (“You think you’re too good for a Bic?”) and denounced for my tax bracket (“People like you can afford to pay 41%, so they should”).

You may be shocked to learn how common envy is, especially if, like me, you don’t envy others. It may floor you to discover that some of your closest relations – partners, family members, and old friends – bear the greatest resentment.

Envy damages the person who feels it, but it can hurt the person envied too. Not the envy itself, but the actions and lack of action that can result from it.

Since resentment is ugly when displayed and easy to hide, it often manifests itself in passive-aggressive behavior. People criticize you behind your back. Unfavorable rumors fly. Worst of all, some people do things  (such as provide or withhold critical business information) just to damage you.

Some of that type of behavior can’t be avoided. But some can, if you adopt the right attitude about your accomplishments from the start: They are nothing to brag about.

Let The Beatles Show You How To Let It Be

Most people don’t realize it now, but the Beatles were not well liked by the press when they first became famous. They were considered lightweight and temporary. Much of the attention they got from the press was intended to expose and embarrass them. It didn’t work. In fact, it was reversed entirely by the Fab Four’s self-effacing wit.

After their first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964, the Beatles were pronounced “a passing phase” and a “symptom” of the era’s “uncertainty and confusion.” According to music historian Louis Menand, the Beatles would not have disagreed.  “They had been in the business a long time before they went on ‘Ed Sullivan,’ and even if a mordant suspicion of the motives of strangers had not been deeply rooted in their personalities, which it was, they also had a fairly developed sense of the freakish nature of stardom.”

In October 1963, when Beatlemania was first sweeping Britain, John was asked how long he thought the group would last. “About five years,” was his reply. He was right. In October 1968, their “White Album” – the last complete group effort – was produced.

It was not, as Menand points out, “that the Beatles were humble people. They were happy to clown around in public, but they did not like being taken for fools, even a little, and they were extremely quick to detect (and rebut) a put-down.”

“The French have not made up their minds about the Beatles,” a BBC interviewer told John shortly before the band left for America. “What do you think of them?” John answered “Oh, we like the Beatles. They’re great.”

The famous press conference at Kennedy Airport a month later – right after the group got off the plane – was an impromptu tour de force. Every question served up in the hope of making a Beatle seem stupid or self-important came right back with spin on it.

“Will you sing something?” was the first question. “No,” they all cried as one. “We need money first,” said John.

“What do you think of Beethoven?” they were asked. “I love him,” Ringo said. “especially his poems.”

“How do you account for your success?” “We have a press agent.” 

The Beatles were never really interested in being liked. They were “never one for showing concern for or gratitude towards, anyone else,” George Martin, their producer said. But they were very much aware that their success would spurn resentment and that such resentment needed to be managed. The best skill they had for doing that was their humor.

It’s a good strategy: Try to avoid conversations that focus on what you’ve done and deflect, diminish, and dismember those you can’t avoid. By ignoring and/or belittling your own accomplishments, at least a little, you make it that much less appealing for your critics to do so.