Culture of envy

Envy causes pain and unhappiness and can even lead to emotional or physical violence. We slip into envy when we resent others for their achievement or good fortune. There are two types of envy. Malicious envy wants the person who has found good fortune to suffer and to be stripped of their achievement, status, or possession. Benign envy can be a motivational force to push you to work harder to succeed.

Natural-born talent is not equally distributed. No matter how hard I work, I’ll never beat LeBron James at basketball or world champion Magnus Carlsen at chess. I’ll never be able to sing and entertain a crowd like Bruno Mars or solve complex physics problems like Nobel laureate Donna Strickland.

But talent is not all that is involved. The effort people invest in pursuing their interests or passion is not equal. In the early days of Microsoft, Bill Gates worked almost around the clock and sometimes would not leave the office for days at a time. Lebron James invested thousands of hours practicing basketball, developing his body, and studying the game. Donna Strickland spent decades studying the physics of lasers.

The birth lottery plays a significant role in your health, intelligence, physical ability, family support, and the opportunities that are available to you. All these factors can lead to different levels of value people contribute to society and to different levels of rewards for their contributions. The result is lots of opportunity for envy.

Humans have struggled with envy for a long time. It’s one of the seven deadly sins in Christian teachings. In the Hebrew Bible, envy is the motivation behind Cain killing his brother Abel. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam all feature prominent warnings about the dangers of envy.

Today we are seeing a backlash against competent, educated, wealthy, and successful people. Billionaires such as Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffet, and Bill Gates are frequently vilified on mainstream and social media. This trend is disturbing. Their businesses have created massive value to society, and their companies employ over a million people. In addition, Gates and Buffett are voluntarily giving away almost all their wealth to help solve the world’s biggest problems. Bezos is investing billions in space exploration, which will convey massive benefits for society and the development of new technology.

There’s not a fixed pot of money. Unfortunately, there are people who hold a wrong assumption that those who have more have taken it from those who have less. Accumulation of wealth is not zero sum. Poker is a zero-sum game because the amount of money in the pot is fixed. Therefore, the person that wins the game is taking money from the players that lose. Life and business do not work this way. Businesses such as Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and Microsoft contribute to lower prices for consumers, employ people, and contribute value to society. Microsoft sells software that supports the growth and success of thousands of businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies.

The vast majority of millionaires in the United States earned their wealth. They did not inherit it. An article in U.S. News titled 7 Myths About Millionaires highlights “a 2017 survey found that 88 percent of millionaires are self-made. Only 12 percent inherited significant money (at least 10 percent of their wealth), and most did not grow up in exclusive country club neighborhoods.”

Don’t allow envy to breed discontent, resentment, and bitterness. Here are a few questions I ask myself to overcome envy when it arises.

  • Do I want to switch places with this person?

We don’t get to pick and choose parts of someone’s life. You can’t pick the NBA success and skip the hours of physical training or the relentless media attention. You get the good with the bad. I have yet to meet someone who I would be willing to trade places with.

  • Has this person worked harder or contributed more value to the world than me?

My honest answer is usually “yes.” Once I acknowledge the contribution and effort of a highly successful person, I am motivated to work harder.

  • What am I grateful for?

Answering this question immediately reframes my perspective and allows me to feel gratitude for all the prosperity I enjoy.

Use benign envy to push yourself to work harder to succeed. But let’s stop malicious envy. In addition to helping lower the temperature in our public conversations that decide how we govern our communities; we will help ourselves by reducing our emotional pain and resentment.


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