The Nordic Cut: Envy Occurs in the Presence of Greatness

Envy, in its purest form, can be easily detected among children. Just witness the discomfort and inability to comprehend the situation, when they see others having things they want. As kids, we don’t recognise that feeling as envy. Although the feeling is born within and comes naturally to anyone, we still tend to blame the person we envy for what we feel inside. As we grow up, we deny the feeling of envy on social grounds. An envious person is perceived as being weak, or flawed or even somewhat ill-willed. And so, envy remains in the shadows of our being.

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By definition, envy means that you want something for yourself that someone else has, or you would want someone else not to have something. The way to avoid envy is to be completely content in your own life. In other words, you should let go of your drive of wanting anything. This rarely occurs outside of the Zen monk community, and I suspect not many of them are reading this now.

I am envious. Although I don’t necessarily envy someone else’s worldly possessions, my envy lurks in my professional ambitions. When envy strikes, you cannot miss it. When someone else does, accomplishes or appears to be something I would want to see for myself, it stings. The stinging sensation is followed by the burn, the excruciating pain that turns your stomach around and makes you turn your head away. Then comes the second wave bearing with it the shame and the guilt over your own reactions. A blush may appear. This is the deciding moment when – if aware – you get to decide if envy ends up being good or bad.

To me, envy is a red flag of a learning experience. Being envious tells me that I am in the presence of greatness. The person that I envy, oblivious to my consciousness, has some skill, personality or ability that I want to have. I may not be able to find this desire within me through a logical thinking process, but that is when envy comes to the rescue. With its help, I see what it is that I really want or what I should learn.

A few years back, I decided to come out with this shameful feeling. In my line of business, I meet a lot of people and quite a number of them represent qualities and histories that are often perceived as signs of success. When faced with greatness, I decided to bite the bullet, confront the person and express my feeling of envy. I would tell to their face which part of their professional presence had such qualities that they triggered these emotions in me. I would not just say ”You were good”, but instead my message was ”You were as good as I would want to be myself.” As my feeling was genuine, and I wasn’t ”just saying it”, the positive feedback was also well deserved. I also learnt yet another thing about myself – so this was clearly a win-win way to go.

But what to do when you want to excel and feel good about your own qualities? Won’t envy clip the wings of your happiness and the feeling of content? This might happen if you think that the things or skills that you envy are the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But they are not. In my view, life is an entity where we all give individual value for the things we seek. If it’s envy that drives you, most likely something else will drop off your life’s inventory. It may be something of importance, something you will miss. Being content is a subjective right. So yes, you can safely envy the little bits and pieces you see from the lives of others. But as you have no way to find out what their overall user experience of life is, there’s no reason to feel as if you had any less as a whole. You get to decide which legos you use to build your life and which legos you leave out, no matter how beautiful and desirable they are individually.

If your measure of success is just money, then you’re screwed. Money is not subjective. It can be measured and there will always be someone whose stack of happiness is higher than yours. Under the proper supervision, envy can be a powerful teacher on your way to feeling and becoming better.


“The Nordic Cut” is a series on life, people and business as seen through Nordic eyes, written by Petri Rajaniemi who is a writer, keynote speaker and founding partner at Future Works. He is also a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. The aim of the column is ”Trying to say something that no-one else says”. Petri Rajaniemi on Twitter: @petrirajaniemi

Photo credit: Shutterstock

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