Envy as a compass

Envy is that raw human emotion that has swayed the hand of our species for an eternity. In the older of the two great Hindu epics, the Ramayana, it was Kaikeyi’s envy that was at the root of Lord Rama’s exile. It is envy that can inspire us to push harder and thrust ourselves into success that we feel entitled to. It is envy that makes us burn inside when we see our best friend top the class, while our own name sits buried deep down in the ranking list.

Envy is a hangover of natural selection. In today’s world, envy is counterproductive. It is an illusion that is brought about by cherry-picking the best aspects of other people’s lives, while discounting the struggles or the suffering they may have gone through. To deserve to be envious of another person, we ought to live every minute of their lives. Since it is impossible to do so, all envy is illusion. And like most illusions (maya) it leads to suffering.

But can we put envy, that automatic emotion that eats us out inwardly, to positive use?

Susan Cain, the author of Quiet, a book about the power of introverts, was a successful lawyer. In her corporate law firm, she observed several colleagues gossiping about lawyers who were doing well for themselves – arguing a brief before the supreme court, running for office or so on. She noticed that her colleagues were envious, and congratulated herself for being free of it. However, she realized that she wasn’t envious merely because she was stuck in the wrong job – she had no interest in pursuing a career in law. She was envious of successful writers though. In hindsight, she realized that envy could be used as a compass, because today she is the author of bestselling books.

“Pay attention to what you envy. Jealousy is an ugly emotion, but it tells the truth. You mostly envy those who have what you desire.” – she quotes in her book.

Envy cuts through the surface, and reaches down to what we desire without our conscious knowledge. This is why we feel like we’re burning deep down whenever we are envious.

Inspiration: Susan Cain’s conversation with Shane Parish on The Knowledge Project


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