My Latest Harvard Business Review Article: How to Make Envy Work For You
If you’re grappling with envy, use my "personal envy lab” model to understand your triggers, what you can do about it, how to make envy productive
Dear Community Members,
I am the CEO of Network Capital writing to share my latest article for Harvard Business Review (HBR) where I deconstruct envy and explain how we can make it work for us.
My editors at HBR decided to surprise me by publishing this article today (it happens to be my birthday). Writing for HBR was once a dream but thanks to your support, I do what I love for a living.
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This article first appeared in the Harvard Business Review.
All through my childhood and adolescence, I felt this invisible pressure to shape my career a certain way. I was born into a family of educators and doctors. My parents and the society-at-large had fairly specific ideas about what a “suitable” career looked like. There was a sense that I needed to indulge them before my own curiosities. In India, if you are a reasonably good student, pursuing medicine or engineering is preordained.
I liked technology but being an engineer wasn’t really my calling. I was far more interested in theater and making movies, even though rehearsals and practice didn’t fit into my intense study schedule. To add to the stress, convincing my parents seemed like a nightmare. They worked in different cities and had sacrificed a lot to ensure that my brother and I went to good schools. Acting just didn’t seem like a viable option. So I put a pause on my passion to focus on the engineering entrance examinations.
When the results came out, I had done well. With the anxieties of my parents partly allayed, the first thing I did was to enroll myself into a theater workshop the summer before college started. Now was my time to do what I wanted to do all along.
On the very first day, the workshop curator (a prominent theater personality in Delhi) was late. I sat in a corner, away from everybody else, waiting for him to arrive. There I spotted a group of three students mimicking each other and practicing dialogues. There was something about the way they were, the way they spoke to each other, and how they practiced their dialogues that magnified my nervousness and left me with an iota of regret. I had spent the last two years cocooned in my books (literally cut off from the world), doing something that wasn’t my first love. I didn’t resent those three but looking at them made me realize that they had something I desperately wanted.
Theater for me wasn’t just about my love for acting. It was my way of connecting with the world, and in preparation of my examination, I had lost touch with it.
It was my first real brush with envy (one I was really aware of).
What is envy?
Merriam-Webster defines envy as “painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another joined with a desire to possess the same advantage.” Simply put, envy is craving something another person has (that you’d like). At the core of it, it is secret admiration. Envy is an unintended compliment, an abrupt emotion that cracks us open and reveals things we truly value or wish for. With the benefit of hindsight, I now realize that envy loves to manufacture details and is a remarkably inventive storyteller. I had no way of knowing whether those three were really happy or whether they loved acting, but my envious gaze ensured I felt a pang of inadequacy.
Relevance and similarity are two themes that recur when we deconstruct envy. We tend to envy people whose work is similar to ours and those who are comparable to us. More often than not, they happen to be our peers. Over the years, I’ve realized that envy tends to be horizontal. When I worked at Microsoft, for example, I never heard anyone express envy towards Satya Nadella or Bill Gates. Those leaders inspired us, and we admired them.
Making Envy Work for You
Envy can be malicious or benign — the key difference being how it motivates us to act. The former motivates us to be hostile or level down while the latter motivates us to level up and achieve our goals. That benign envy I experienced on the first day of my theater workshop pushed me forward. Despite the busy engineering curriculum and multiple college internships, I carved out time to audition, rehearse and perform in India and abroad. For one of my roles, I traveled more than 1,000 miles on a rickety bus on bumpy Indian roads to record a five-minute scene in an offbeat film, days before my final exams. Although it was a fairly stressful ride, making it back to college just in the nick of time remains a cherished memory.
Every time I got on stage, those three actors from my theater workshop became my invisible audience. Thanks to social media, they remained my inspiration for years to come. Two of them went on to become well-known actors — one made waves in Bollywood and the other landed a mega television show. I wanted to be as good as them. Every time I practiced, I had three relatable role models nudging me to go the extra mile.
Often envy is talked about negatively. Envy is one of the seven deadly sins in Roman Catholicism. For me, however, envy has been educational, instructive, and even inspiring. Envy is perhaps the best teacher I have ever had. It’s pushed me to observe my emotions more deeply, empowered me to reflect, and helped me understand what I really want and why. Instead of trying to brush it aside, I have always tried to deconstruct its subtle messages.
In fact, I developed a process that helps me grapple with envy better than I used to. It is important to keep in mind, however, that this process works for benign envy, not malicious envy. Benign envy could become malignant if it’s allowed to grow unchecked, and that’s where this tool helped me. Instead of losing sight of my own goals and transferring the locus of control to someone else, I used this process to understand my triggers, what I had control over, and put things in perspective.
Now, whenever I feel envious of someone or something, I open the notepad on my phone and document three things. I call this my “personal envy lab.” Here is how it works:
Trigger: What was my trigger? Was it a news piece on social media? Was it a rejection? Did someone accomplish something I secretly wished I could? Documenting this gives me direction and saves me from diving into a negativity spiral. Keeping a simple record is the first step towards negotiating with envy. I try and be as objective as I possibly can and write down the when and where of my triggered emotional state as well as how long it lasted and what it felt like. I label my emotions as I feel them.
Action: “Of things, some are in our power, and others are not.” These are the very first words in Stoic teacher Epictetus’ Enchiridion. I draw comfort from this philosophy which basically nudges us to focus on things that we can control, accept situations as they are, and make the best of what we have. So after I’ve journaled my triggers, I ask myself what exactly am I envying and what I can do about it.
The first step here is about decoupling the person from the attribute. Instead of saying, “I envy Amy because she acts so well,” I write, “Amy’s acting prowess made me envious. I feel I was not good enough today and I need more practice.” Now, what can I do about it? Can I work harder? How can I let Amy’s acting prowess inspire me to get better? Sometimes, we spend all our time being envious and compromising our peace of mind instead of taking action and making the emotion work in our favor.
Insight: Lastly, I ask myself a simple question, “Would I trade places with the person I am envious of?” Yes or no? We often envy parts of other people’s lives, not their entire existence. I have realized that there are aspects to people’s life I may want. But if I’m not willing to trade places with them completely — their lifestyles, their friends, their values, their thoughts, their visions — then there is nothing to be envious about. This last step is what helps put things in perspective.
Take a look at some of my entries from the last few years.
I still look up to those three actors from my theater class, draw inspiration from how they have chased their passion and carved out a niche in the intensely competitive Bollywood industry. That said, there hasn’t been a single day I’ve wanted to switch places with them.
Having run this personal envy lab for almost five years, I have nothing but gratitude for all the life and leadership lessons envy has taught me. Time changes perspective. What I have learned is that while I still love acting, it is not my only love. Today I am an entrepreneur who acts a bit on the side. Sometimes I ask myself if I had a magic wand that allowed to me trade places with anyone I had ever envied, what would I do? Would I swap?
Surprisingly, the answer has always been no.
The envy lab, vision setting exercise and leadership training are critical component of the Network Capital CEO Fellowship. The fellowship starts on July 10, 2021 and is a combination of live interactive sessions, 1:1 mentoring, self-paced projects and networking sessions.
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