The Perfect Life

“Let age, not envy, draw wrinkles on thy cheeks.” – Sir Thomas Browne (A Letter to a Friend, 1690)

I know a successful young executive who has accomplished more in less than 40 years than most people achieve in their lifetimes. He is rich. He is accomplished. He has a beautiful home and family. Yet, he takes no pleasure in any of it.

Instead, he’s consumed by what he doesn’t have. He talks incessantly about what others have: the doctor’s mansion down the street, his brother-in-law’s Ferrari, his girlfriend’s girlfriend.

And the same is true of his career. No matter how well his business does, he finds a way to compare it unfavorably with another business — or his expectations of doing better.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to be satisfied,” he told me last night over dinner. “It makes you complacent and then you lose your edge.”

I understood what he meant. There is a good part of my mind that works the same way. I’m afraid to like what I have for fear of becoming lazy: If what I already have is good enough, why work for more?

But there is an obvious problem with this kind of thinking — it robs you of pleasure. And if you make it a habit, you can spend your entire life begrudging what you don’t have instead of taking pleasure in what you do. When you deny yourself the pleasure of enjoying something you have by dwelling on something “better” that someone else has, you are guilty of envy. The sin of envy carries with it an immediate penalty — an available pleasure is taken from you.

And there is another thing about envy — it’s a malignant way of thinking, as this wonderful poem by Donald Hall illustrates:

Unicorns envy their cousin

Horses a smooth forehead

Horses weep for lack of horns.

Hills cherish the ambition

To turn into partial

Differential equations,

Which want to be poems, or dogs,

Or the Pacific Ocean,

Or whiskey, or a gold ring.

The man wearing the noose

Envies an other who fondles

A pistol in a motel room.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]