What do you want to do with your life? Leverage envy to find out.

I keep running into people who lead more interesting lives than I do. I realize that this is just an elaborate illusion concocted by my mind in an effort to create a useful mental model of another human being who is way to complex too comprehend, but it still gets me down sometimes.

I'm a naturally optimistic person, and there's gears that start spinning whenever I repeatedly run into a source of emotional drainage. Experience has indicated that there's truth to be uncovered in most pain, and that once the truth is found, the pain dissipates to reveal some kind of rich experience.

So, a while back I started thinking about what kind of rich experience envy would leave behind if one found it's real source. I started digging, and found that I could trace envy to very particular things. At different times I've envied genius programmers, beautiful artists, and eloquent speakers. Identifying these qualities is EXTREMELY valuable, because it generates a list of stuff you want to be. I've sat down many a time and tried to make this kind of list off the top of my head, and it's really hard to do. I've also drawn the conclusion that this is a common problem because I know a number of people who are not very satisfied with their current life, but if you ask them what they want instead they can't tell you.

So, experiencing envy gives you some serious clues as to what you might want. The next step is weeding out the parts that only sound good if you don't think about them too much. Consider rock stardom. Sure, all the middle school girls love you, but would you enjoy travelling 8 months out of the year, sacrificing your relationships, practicing hours every day, and playing the same songs over and over to audiences who hate all your new stuff? Knocking down these fuzzy, badly articulated dreams minimizes a lot of the pain associated with envy. What's left is a list of qualities that you genuinely desire.

So, say by doing this sorting we've reduced the pain of envy by about 50%. Dealing with the last 50% requires a little meditation and one very useful piece of information.

Some of the items on your list (like rock stardom for most people) are relatively easy to dismiss. The remaining items require careful weighing of the positives and negatives. The more clear these become, the more you realize how many options you have. We all have lots of options open to us, but most of the time none of it sounds doable or attractive enough to stop what we're doing and switch gears. But if you give it a little thought, they become more tangible. Vacations or camping trips are great for this kind of meditation, I've found.

The bit of information one needs to fully appreciate the qualities one envies in others, and to understand their cost, is the law of 10,000 hours to mastery. Research has shown that for someone to become a master at something, they almost always have to spend 10,000 hours (3 hours a day for 10 years) practicing it. This law holds for Bill Gates and the Beetles. The example that stuck in my mind was that the Beetles performed over a thousand times before that really got the recognition we remember. That's more performances than most bands have in their entire careers. So, when you see a quality in someone else that you want, think about the time it took to obtain that quality. Then, consider what qualities or skills you've been cultivating over the years. Invariably you will have something valuable that the person you envy does not. For me, this completes the deflation of envy. Instead of thinking about the qualities I don't have, I've instead fostered a sense of respect for the work that someone else has dedicated to develop their qualities, as well as recognized what unique qualities I have, and - very important - what qualities I wish to acquire.

I think you can ride this wave of clarity a little further. Now that you know what you want, and you don't have negative feelings associated with your own qualities or the qualities you seek, it's a perfect time to make some decisions about what to do next. Developing skills and qualities takes time, so what do you want to work on? Coming to a decision on this then helps you take advantage of opportunities to develop these.

In my own case, this lead me to leave my job and seek work in a very particular area. I'm now willing to turn down lucrative opportunities for ones that will help me develop the skills and qualities I desire. Being so purposeful means that every time an opportunity presents itself, I have to reflect on how the opportunity might or might not aid in the fulfillment of my goals, which further articulates and evolves them.

This perhaps complex train of thought begins with simple envy. Envy is useful because it's an instinctual - and thus reliable - reaction. I'd encourage anyone who experiences bouts of it to try riding it for a bit and turn it into something positive. And let me know if it works for you too!



Comments

Insightful thoughts, Chris. I've to agree with you that envy does play a part into exploring our choices and options in life. 6 years ago, I envied my friends who gave up their careers to take care of their kids and that's what inspired myself to quit to be a stay at home mum. So far, the journey has been very rewarding! Good to hear that you're a stay at home dad too!