When you are envious of your friend’s success

By Dale

TLDR Bullets

  • I felt envious of a friend’s success and upcoming book about a topic I cared about
  • Envy can be triggered when it exposes your own perceived flaw and past failures
  • Reducing the feeling of envy is tough, some techniques don’t work, such as 
    • Telling myself not to feel that way
    • Making excuses for myself
    • Making unrealistic vows to become more awesome immediately
  • Some ancient wisdom ideas are more useful
    • Acknowledge that everyone flaws, failures, shortcomings, and prone to suffering
    • Focus only on inputs not outputs. Focus on doing the work, not the outcome of the work
    • Dedicate your work to the gods
  • Acknowledge there is no cure for envy, only lifelong opportunities to get better at addressing it

The envy trigger

On my drive to work yesterday I turned on Cal Newport’s podcast, Deep Questions with Cal Newport. Cal helped me come up with the concept for the AWP and has been a great friend and supporter.

I’ve always looked up to him and specifically the way he tackles his goals: systematically and contemplatively.

But, when he mentioned on an episode that he is writing a book about the Deep Life, I immediately felt deflated.

I felt deflated because he is tackling a topic that I love and will almost certainly do it much better than me and, in classic Cal fashion, will be successful in a way that I am envious of and oh, be super humble about it. Annoying!

The root of envy

Being envious of your friends is a strange and uncomfortable feeling. 

It’s strange because I don’t feel envious of miscellaneous celebrities or successful people. It’s very cool that Elon Musk is a mega billionaire entrepreneur but I don’t feel any particular way about him.

What I suspect is that we feel envy when our own perceived flaws and past failures are exposed.

There have been two major failures that still feel painful to me.

The first is dropping out of SEAL training.

This is still painful not because I wish I were a Navy SEAL now, but because I didn’t quit the right way. I suspect I quit out of weakness, rather than quitting because I went through a careful decision making process.

I still have weird dreams about this on occasion.

The second failure doesn’t feel as acutely painful. After I complete the initial AWP experiments this blog just fizzled out. I made some attempts at reviving it but never stuck with it consistently.

There was even a time when I was out of work for over a year and barely did anything! 

The regret is that I was lazy and weak. The only person to blame is myself.

What to do about envy

I have two goals for myself:

  1. To be able to think about my own failures without excessively dwelling on it and 
  2. To be able to continue to make progress on goals that matter to me

Here’s what doesn’t work for me:

  • Just telling myself not to feel that way
  • Making excuses for myself
  • Making unrealistic vows to be more awesome immediately

If you’ve ever tried to lose weight, you’ll know you can experience all three in the span of 3 minutes.

  • “Don’t feel bad about your rolls, you look great!”
  • “Well it’s a special occasion so I’m not going to count those cupcake calories”
  • “Ugh why did I at those cupcakes? I’m going to work out 100 times per week and only eat carrots”

There are some ideas from ancient wisdom that are either comforting or useful.

Acknowledge that we all have flaws, failures, and shortcomings and are prone to suffering

You must never trick yourself into thinking that you are unique in your faults and that you are doomed because of them.

Catholicism teaches that humans are sinful by nature, but still loved. Most importantly, being aware of our flaws and sins can lead to growth.

Does reviewing your sins still seem a manifestation of the worst stereotypes of Christianity? Well, an admission of our own sinfulness, or our inability to do what is right, helps not only to move us closer to God, but also to become more loving people. We are also able to see more clearly our need for God, who invites us to grow in love, no matter how many times we take a step backward.

-Father James Martin (S.J.), The Jesuit Guide to (Almost Everything), Father James Martin (S.J.)

Buddhism teaches suffering, or sukkah, as the first noble truth. Suffering can have many causes. Sometimes it is unmet desires, other times is ignorance. But these are known causes that can be treated.

It is true that the Buddha taught the truth of suffering, but he also taught the truth of “dwelling happily in things as they are” (drishta dharma sukha viharin).To succeed in the practice, we must stop trying to prove that everything is suffering. In fact, we must stop trying to prove anything. If we touch the truth of suffering with our mindfulness, we will be able to recognize and identify our specific suffering, its specific causes, and the way to remove those causes and end our suffering.

Thicht Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation

Hindus teach that “Gunas” are the threads of existence. It is difficult to describe but they are like traits or ways of being. There is Tamas which encompasses all our base desires and behaviors. There is Rajas, which describes our ego centric human actions and energies (our desires to say, get rich). And there is Satvas, which reflects the “higher mind” of acting detached and in harmony with the world.

All actions are performed by the gunas of prakriti. Deluded by identification with the ego, a person thinks, “I am the doer.” But the illumined man or woman understands the domain of the gunas and is not attached. Such people know that the gunas interact with each other; they do not claim to be the doer.

Translated by Eknath Easwaran, The Bhagavad Gita

We are constantly experiencing the Gunas and in different proportions. What we think of as our character is constantly changing due to the interplay of the Gunas.

The beauty of it is that through study and practice, we can improve ourselves.

Acknowledging your own imperfections does not have to be a miserable exercise that leads you to give up on yourself or your aspirations. Putting it in the correct context can actually be useful for growth.

Focus only on inputs, not outputs

If this post doesn’t go viral and get me a billion tweeter-tok-gram followers I’ll die!

Marcus Aurelius, our favorite Stoic emperor, also wrestled with not having enough social media fame (don’t fact check me on this).

He wrote, in a moment when he was feeling bad about his low number of social media followers:

Words once in common use now sound archaic. And the names of the famous dead as well: Camillus, Caeso, Volesus, Dentatus … Scipio and Cato … Augustus … Hadrian and Antoninus, and … 

Everything fades so quickly, turns into legend, and soon oblivion covers it. 

And those are the ones who shone. The rest—“unknown, unasked-for” a minute after death. What is “eternal” fame? Emptiness. 

Then what should we work for? Only this: proper understanding; unselfish action; truthful speech. A resolve to accept whatever happens as necessary and familiar, flowing like water from that same source and spring.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

We naturally desire many things outside of our control. The most tempting outcomes we seek are the ones we feel we have some influence over. But let’s not confuse influence over control.

Guy Raz in his podcast, How I Built This, always asks the successful entrepreneurs at the end of the show whether they think their success was due to skill or luck?

Almost everyone says “both.”

But we can’t do anything about luck. So once again, Marcus Aurlieus tells us what we should do.

Love the discipline you know, and let it support you. Entrust everything willingly to the gods, and then make your way through life—no one’s master and no one’s slave.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

When I copied and pasted that quote into this blog post, I felt some relief. I’m only responsible for writing this post. The gods will do the rest. Speaking of which….

Work for the gods

I have a small Ganesh figurine sitting on my bookshelf. 

Whenever my wife and I travel somewhere, we offer Ganesh some candy or sweets (chocolate popcorn and gummy bears for example) and ask Ganesh for minimal airline delays and traffic jams.

I don’t know if it works but it makes us feel better.

Lately, I’ve been making Ganesh an offering before my morning writing sessions. However, instead of offering candy, I light some incense and offer my writing session to him and ask him to help me write it in the spirit of service and not for my own ego.

I’m sure Ganesh would prefer the candy but this act helps me write from a less ego-centric perspective.

Whatever I am offered in devotion with a pure heart – a leaf, a flower, fruit, or water – I accept with joy. Whatever you do, make it an offering to me – the food you eat, the sacrifices you make, the help you give, even your suffering. In this way you will be freed from the bondage of karma, and from its results both pleasant and painful. Then, firm in renunciation and yoga, with your heart free, you will come to me.

-Translated by Eknath Easwaran, The Bhagavad Gita

If you struggle with something (it doesn’t have to be work) you can offer it all to the gods or universe or whatever. It helps.

There is no cure for envy

Jack Kornfield, an American Buddhist,  wrote a book called After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. He makes the case that enlightenment is not a single event that will make your life perfect.

Rather, enlightenment is a life-long practice. There will never be a point in which you have mastered your emotions, have perfect relationships, and achieved every professional ambitions you ever want.

Every moment of your life is an opportunity to practice the behaviors that lead to enlightenment. In my case it is to observe my own professional envy and channel it into something useful, and not harmful to the soul. But it will be the work of a lifetime, not something that will be resolved as soon as I publish this blog post.