“It is in the character of very few men to honor without envy a friend who has prospered.” – Aeschylus
Writing in “Speak Out”, ETR reader Greg A. asks:
“I was wondering if anyone here has dealt with family or friends that seem to want you to fail. I mean, 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?”
Well, yes, Greg, there is a thing called envy. And it’s about as commonplace as the common cold. Envy is probably the least obvious of the major vices. For most people, it’s quite invisible. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t play a role in their lives — but rather that they don’t feel it.
The thing about envy is this: You don’t feel it unless you are its victim. Feeling envious doesn’t feel like a vice. It feels like an inalienable right.
I wrote about envy once or twice before. And, as I said, 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:
1. want something that someone else has
2. 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 Charlie 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 Charlie’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.
What’s happening in Greg’s case is that he is starting to be successful — and his friends aren’t. 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 importantly, 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.