The gap between inspiration and envy
Envy is the cancer of the soul.
Perhaps no emotion is worse than envy.
An unflattering, tyrannical sensation plaguing human nature today. And it’s worsening. An emotion of vulnerability that thrives in the gap between you and someone you knew. A lousy substitution for inspiration. Envy makes you feel like you need “what someone else has—skills, situation, energy, life, friends. So you feel the need to trash them to make you feel better about not having… whatever it is,” as expressed by Jenny Mustard.
Jenny conveys that it is a desire to bring someone else down to your level instead of rising to their brilliance—because it is always easier to tear down than build up.
We’ve all been there. When that feeling appears, we scrutinise and try to find flaws. We keep that bitter sentiment to ourselves because revealing it yields little (if any) sympathy. Most people judge those who describe themselves as envious because there’s something off-putting about it.
How is it getting worse? The conditions that allow envy in, to let it grow and thrive like harmful bacteria, are boosted by technological progress. And our behaviours have not evolved to adapt to this reality. Lawrence Yeo voices that it should be just as acceptable to talk about envy as it is about anxiety—and I agree—as they feed into each other.
Instead, we let it eat at us.
According to Lawrence, the first rule of envy is:
You will be envious of those that have reached your desired state, but are not too far removed from it. Those that are too far out will be sources of inspiration, not envy.
Visually, he says it can look like this:
“Unreachable” figures will be in that green space. People like Elon Musk, Lionel Messi, Warren Buffett or Jeff Bezos. Their wealth or success is at such an unfathomable level you decide that, instead of being envious, you will buy their biographies, preach their wisdom, and ultimately try to learn everything from them.
On the contrary, people in the same space as you won’t garner much envy; either you are as wealthy as they are, or you don’t view these people through your lens to begin with. It is where you will find your healthiest friendships and relationships—as nothing is desired from them outside of enjoyable experiences.
What’s left is the red zone. People in this space attract the greatest level of envy.
Now, you won’t be envious of everyone in this area. Lawrence explains it’ll come down to specific criteria being matched:
You share history with this “rival”, and now they are way ahead of you
Their path to success feels easily replicable
Your rival appears very relatable to you
Envy is a strongly opaque relationship with someone you can’t ignore. And while they appear to be ahead and more successful than you, they don’t feel out of reach.
It leads you to a danger zone. You ask, “Why can’t I do what they do?” You feel just as capable as them, with as much conviction in your identical abilities. But this leads to even more dissatisfaction because you become disheartened from feeling so far behind. It is also why you tend to feel envy the most at work; your colleagues are nicely above the average promotion rate while you are something of an afterthought for your bosses. Or, you’re an entrepreneur rowing idly down the stream, and someone who just got in the water last year has already sailed past you.
Much of this comes from smartphones and social media. The promise of continuous connectivity made the world feel smaller, time feel faster, and allowed a dramatic increase in how many people are “around you”.
Everything is perfectly curated. Communication became asynchronous—meaning it doesn’t happen in real-time. People once thought to be unreachable are now accessible through an instant message. This shaped the unintended promise of making everyone seem relatable, shrinking our expectations while giving echo chambers a wider platform. And now it seems like everyone shares the same journey as you.
I agree with the view that social media’s promise of making everyone “accessible” and “relatable” is nonsense. If it were true, people wouldn’t be playing as many worthless zero-sum status games they don’t even realise they’re playing.
It’s a daily battle we face when we go online: comparing ourselves with polished thoughts and results and survivorship bias. To make matters worse, most people face this problem silently, letting it break them down without acknowledging the struggle with anyone else. Like Lawrence says, envy is cancer that eats away at our soul.
Okay, you can’t eliminate envy completely. But when this feeling appears, your goal is to switch it around. Instead of feeling like your skills aren’t as good as someone else, practice making yours better. Ask yourself, why shouldn’t I get closer to their level than where you are now? Criticising someone now might make you feel better for the moment, but will your skills improve the next time they, or another skilled person, show up?
How about you start to get impressed, inspired, and show up? Understanding the three elements of envy may help you be more aware of it and know how to quell the fans that ignite the flames of envy. And maybe next time, there will be no reason for envy to show up when it usually would in your life.
First: the root
Start with the birthplace of envy: desire.
Not all desires are created equal. That may be obvious. But our desires tend to feel like absolutes when in reality, they can be plotted on a spectrum of innovative desires versus primitive desires. Innovative desires cater to the caring angels of our nature: fostering our creativity, well-being, mindset and decision-making for life experiences. Meanwhile, primitive desires are rudimentary wants we have that come across as thoughtless or banal. The rule of this spectrum is that the more primitive your desire is, the more likely envy will be in control.
Primitive desires are so commonplace that there will always be a reason we feel we must move the goalposts to the specific person we want to move them to.
Instead, it’s better to usher your desires toward innovative desires. Let them take a seat there. Because here, they cannot be externally validated or tied to someone else’s progress. They are unique to you. For ex: “spend 10 minutes on my hobby every day” or “learn something interesting to me” are only important to your inner tracker and can’t be marked by someone else who might make you feel inadequate when they advertise their progress.
Next: The imagined
Pinpoint what it is about a “rival” that makes you consistently envious, and run this thought:
If this person didn’t possess what I want, what would I think about him/her?
There’s a convincing chance you’d get on well. Dispose of the conditions that create envy, and you’re left with a great degree of relatability between you two. And if you ever had a chance to meet, you’d assumably have lots to talk about, and you would find there is not so much distance between you two as imagined.
It could reveal that maybe you don’t want this person’s life. You just want what you desire. And thus, deduction is the final answer going forward. There was nothing about the rival as a whole that you wanted to become. Outside of this single element you desire, you’re largely okay with being you. This is what so many people fail to recognise.
And this takes us to the final step:
Finally: The focus
Noise and clangour are all too prominent in our world. Envy is at its highest when there’s too much noise in your mind.
The best thing to do is to shift all your attention to the things that matter to your soul: challenging work that stretches your mind, mindful practices that help you look within, or just regularly sitting down and reaching into a state of mind that brings balance and quiet for a moment.
These things allow you to immerse into your space and time. Funnily enough, humans already know what triggers envy, though we ignore the implications because we know the long-term damage it can cause. As I mentioned: it is easier to tear down than build up.
Envy is one of the most enduring emotions we have because it is burrowed deeply in our desire for external validation, which is, unfortunately, one of our most influential habits.
The only way to break from envy is to consistently draw your attention inward, to stop gazing into someone else's home and focus on cleaning your own. Afterwards, it’s important to stay in for a while and focus on little else; it is only in your house that you can build and cultivate a self that is free from indulgence, judgement, and desires that harm.
Of course, at some point, we must leave our home and interact with the world—which is indeed an inspiring place with so much beauty. But in the end, its people and stories are only as special as we allow them to be. Envy is a roadblock not letting the right things through, and with our current inability to be open about it, it may be one of the great mental health issues of our time.
It is okay to get impressed as it is to admit inferiority. Instead of focusing on being someone who can define envy, the real takeaway is to be okay with admitting it’s a problem. You and I are not immune to it, this world is connected unlike ever before, and perhaps it is time to stop pretending we’re equipped to handle it. The question is—what are you going to do about it?