The positive power of envy

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Envy – commonly regarded as a negative emotion which leads to dissatisfaction and ill feeling. In religious practices, we are taught the envy is a negative force to be avoided. In the Christian Bible envy is spoken of many times as something one should be careful of. “Do not covet” is of course the most famous of these teachings. In Buddhism the concept is similarly frowned upon. The Buddha quotes “”Do not overrate what you have received, nor envy others. He who envies others does not obtain peace of mind.”

I suspect the religious teachings were there to ensure that people didn’t start resenting each other or moving further away from idea of “Love Thy Neighbour”. Envy, it seems to me, can be a positive force which leads to an aspirational mindset or a negative force which leads to jealousy. Such is the problem with many religious teachings in that they see the worst of mankind rather than the best. It is very much up to the individual on how you want to channel envy.

There’s a huge difference between saying “I want that” and “I hate you because you have that”. We see this issue play out in political economic rhetoric, where some groups are insistent on the idea of taking wealth away from others rather than having the philosophy of trying to attain the wealth level of those they despise.

Of course, it goes without saying that gratitude for what we have is something we should all be more cognisant of. I myself am guilty of forgetting this, and have moments when I’m reminded of everything I have. But it is possible to be grateful for what we have as well as wanting certain things that others have. For an ambitious person who wants success, envy is a good thing.

This extends to all areas of our lives. It’s perfectly ok to look at the chiselled abs and defined biceps of a Men’s Health cover model and say ‘Yea, I want to be that guy’. It’s ok to look at your ultra-confident, all knowledgeable boss and say, “I want to be him”. We need these figures as clear guides as to what we want to become. There is a movement to make these cover models more realistic and show models with their natural flaws. I’m not so sure I agree. I tend to think we need to see perfection to motivate us, create envy, and spark us into attempting to achieve it.

Around December and January last year over the holiday I stayed in a far more affluent suburb than the one where I live. I remember going for long walks in the afternoons down streets I wasn’t familiar with, looking with great interest at beautifully designed big houses in quiet, tree shaded avenues. Instead of staring at these houses with indifference or resentment, it gave me a feeling of immense aspiration. I wanted a house like this. I therefore wanted a career that would grant me access to a house like this. It reminded me of what I wanted. I felt more motivated than I had in months.

A look at communist nations in the 1900’s further proves my point. One of the primary downfalls of communist attempts goes beyond economics. Those countries eventually resulted in an environment where there was nothing to aspire to. There was very little opportunity for envy, and the results of this were plain to see. When you take away man’s ability to want, your rip the beating heart out of society.

If we sometimes find ourselves with a lack of drive and motivation, I would suggest reminding yourself of all the things that you want or want to be. Want to get in shape? Look at magazines and Instagram posts of hot people working out. Want become a great presenter? Watch Ted Talks. Want to be a good leader? Learn from the likes of Peter Drucker and Jim Collins. Want to write better? Read Hemingway. These are just examples. The bottom line is, find people you want to be. It’s ok to envy their abilities – let the envy fuel you. Then go be them, with your own flavour.

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