Lead an Idiosyncratic Life and Envy of Others Goes Down

That “funny feeling” of envy / jealousy only exists when the subject of our envy resembles us in some way. I don’t get jealous if Bill Gates has a big success, but I do get jealous if someone close to me in age / race / location does something very similar to what I’m trying to do. I don’t get jealous if a good friend becomes a marvelously successful chef, but I do get somewhat jealous if he becomes marvelously successful (or at least more successful than me) in my field of choice.

People who lead traditional career paths, then, have more people to compare themselves to. A young attorney has thousands of other attorneys around the same age and pursuing the same type of law against whom he can measure himself.

One reason I think envy is less pronounced in entrepreneurship circles is that entrepreneurs tend to lead idiosyncratic lives. It’s hard for a life entrepreneur to find another person whose path overlaps in a major way. Hence, fewer people seem directly competitive.

This has its downsides. Loneliness. You feel like few people can appreciate how you got here and where you’re going. And you lack easy benchmarks on how you’re doing in life relative to peers.

But there are upsides. You more frequently can Bask in Reflected Glory of your friends’ successes. Your drive to soar higher can come from genuine inspiration at others’ success instead of raw jealousy. The latter can incite action, but the former is more pure and sustainable.

Bottom Line: If you carve a unique path in life, fewer people (especially in your friend set) will seem directly comparable / competitive, and this will allow you to genuinely revel in their successes as opposed to being privately consumed by jealously.

(hat tip to Ramit Sethi for helping spark this theory)

9 comments on “Lead an Idiosyncratic Life and Envy of Others Goes Down
  • Great point Ben. This rings true in many other areas like relationships or working out. The precursor to becoming involved in idiosyncratic ventures may just be to view oneself idiosyncratically.

  • Bill Gates and comparable Joe – normally the two ways jealousy manifests ; as a harmless venerable adulation and as an extreme destructive disturbance. It’s either a fine featherduster or a blunt mallet, depending on how we assess our own self worth in the open society.

    Draw upon the Bard. Othello instructed us: Harmful jealousy springs from a weak sense of self; Othello is nothing without Desdemona’s pure love. The problem there was Othello recognized and agreed with it.

    The need to work around jealousy is founded on the high likelihood of depression as its outcome. It calls for some conscious effort to reassure that you are still a full person with all those minuses. Your autonomy is in tact and you have the right to take a different path to your goal.

    And you’re right!

  • Just yesterday my wife was discussing with me her desire to have our son brought up “knowing God”.

    That led to a discussion on different Protestant sects, which brought up the discussion of every person wanting to feel like they belong to group of like-minded people that they can frequently mingle with.

    I told her that I rarely feel that I fit in. I can’t say that I’m a successful entrepreneur, yet, but I know that I am idiosyncratic and as many benefits as that has, it also has social repercussions that can lead to depressive states of mind if one allows oneself to dwell on them.

    In all matters, one most focus on the positive aspects of life, oneself, and others.

  • What’s wrong with jealousy? If you’ve been brought up with the ethical basics, you’re not going to assassinate someone or stab them in the back at your corporation, you’re just going to try to make more money than them, or win a Nobel Prize before they do. What’s wrong with that?

  • Eliezer,

    Fair point.

    There are many ways to be motivated to make money or win a Nobel prize. I think competition is one of the best ways to foster such a motivational drive — but I see this as slightly different than raw envy / jealously. Jealously can lead to the unethical actions that you talked about, or, even if it leads to a personal drive to win, seems less sustainable in the long run.

    Maybe, however, I’m wrong and there is no difference.

    • If you use jealousy as a means to look at your own life and say, ‘hey, I could do more or do something different to make my life better’, then jealousy could be useful. But if jealousy turns you petty or close-minded, it’s not worth it!

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