“The envious man thinks that if his neighbor breaks a leg, he will be able to walk better himself.” – Helmut Schoeck
ETR reader Greg A. wants to know how to deal with “family or friends that seem to want you to fail… if a great break in your plan to future success happens, and you tell everyone the good news, and half of them act bitter and discouraging.”
Unfortunately, envy is about as commonplace as crabgrass, though not as easy to spot. But you can defeat it – once you learn how to recognize it.
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 up. 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 percent, so they should”).
You may be shocked to learn how widespread envy is. In fact, 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. And most people – both the enviers and the envied – aren’t even aware of it.
I am always surprised when I discover that someone is envious of me, because I have never felt envious of others. How is it that I, a man who has admitted to many other sins in my lifetime, managed to be free of this one? Because, to feel envy, you must:
- Want something that someone else has
- Feel that you can’t easily get that thing yourself
If either of those feelings is absent, it’s pretty much impossible to be envious.
Let’s say, for example, that Ralph gets a nice new boat. When you see his boat, you decide that you want one too. If you have the resources, you buy a boat of your own – one that’s perhaps a little nicer than Ralph’s. But if, for whatever reason, you can’t buy one, you start to feel a certain amount of dissatisfaction. And, before long, that turns to envy.
Let’s go back to Greg, the ETR reader I mentioned at the beginning of this essay who wants to know how to deal with people who envy his success. In his case, he is just starting to be successful – while his friends aren’t. I’m guessing that because he has stopped doing whatever unproductive things he was doing before that prevented him from achieving his goals, his friends feel that he has betrayed them. They liked him just the way he was – unfulfilled and burdened by bad habits.
When he dropped his bad habits, it was as if he were dropping them. Greg is like the alcoholic who joins AA and leaves his barfly friends behind. They know he is doing something that is considered to be “good,” but it feels “bad” to them.
If they were smart, Greg’s friends would emulate him. But it’s easier to be jealous – and even to hope that Greg ends up failing miserably.
When you think like that, you do yourself a double injustice. First, you accept limitations that you don’t really have. Second, you spoil a good relationship.
Several times in my career, acquaintances, colleagues, and even friends have done things or said things or failed to do or say things because it was clear that they envied my success. For the most part, I’ve tried not to pay too much attention to this. But I can’t ignore the fact that there are people out there who don’t like me… simply because they don’t have the things that I have. As a result, I’ve learned to make certain adjustments to my behavior that seem to help.
Based on my experience, here’s what I suggest you do:
- Don’t talk too much about your success. Don’t, for example, talk about awards you’ve won, famous people you’ve met, or how much money you’ve made.
- If the subject comes up, make a concerted effort to diminish your own role and praise others.
- Eschew the trappings of success – the fancy cars, the expensive watches, anything that’s ostentatious.
- Most important, be interested in other people – in what they are doing and what successes they are having. Focus attention away from yourself, even while you work on achieving more of your own goals.