tl;dr Consciously identify your own success with that of those around you.
Progress down the path towards excellence means being surrounded by the success of others. This can induce natural feelings of desire to experience others’ success ourselves. Combined with the illusion that others must fail for us to succeed, this generates envy. To avoid the destructive, isolating effects of envy, dispel the zero-sum illusion by consciously identifying your own success with that of those around you.
Surrounded by Success
The best way to be successful is to be surrounded by the kind of success you’re seeking. In startups, academics, photography, and even nerdy games, the example of others’ success helps to show us what’s possible and motivates us to be better.
If the people you begin to meet as you pursue excellence are experiencing success that you don’t deeply desire yourself then it’s easy and natural to simply “be happy for them”. Someone I met recently is a chess champion and it’s quite easy to be happy for him about that accomplishment since I have no particular desire for it myself. When that same person achieves a fundraising milestone for his startup that I’m striving after myself I have a new and distinct set of emotions altogether. I find myself grappling with envy.
Envy, Your Enemy
I’m playing up the intensity of the envy for rhetorical effect but you get the point. It’s pervasive and far-reaching in its impact, especially when it motivates us unconsciously.
I’ve found that a natural human tendency when surrounded by success is to want the success of others for ourselves. Envy is based upon the illusion that either someone else’s success and your own are incompatible or that the person enjoying success is unworthy of it. Neither is likely true. Like most feelings, these beliefs need only be unconsciously plausible for them to have an impact on how we interact with people.
Especially in cases where success is illusive and tensions run high (as in most of the areas mentioned above), it’s easy for our unconscious brains to act as if a successful peer has stolen something from us. When this goes unchecked, it can sabotage a relationship or even prevent personal success if it distracts us from our own efforts.
So the main question that we’re faced with is how to co-opt the natural tendency to want success with a non-destructive alternative to envy.
Their Success = Your Success
The first piece of knowledge to consciously cultivate is the fact that your success is dependent upon mutually-beneficial relationships with others.
LinkedIn CEO Reid Hoffman has been a strong and persuasive proponent of this idea for years. By investing your time and energy in the success of those around you, your success becomes more likely. This way of looking at relationships can harness your natural desire for success and help others as you help yourself. But it’s not enough to invest when you see direct benefit returning to you.
You must invest in your network even when it’s unclear that it will benefit you. In an age of rapid change, it’s impossible to know who will soon become powerful and successful. Paul Graham writes, “If you can’t tell who to be nice to, you have to be nice to everyone.” It’s a simple principle that can help shift your unconscious brain from defensive mode to collaborative mode.
Avoiding Envy on the Road to Success
Any time you start to pursue success seriously, you’ll find yourself surrounded by examples of people enjoying the success you want for yourself. Envy unconsciously presupposes a zero-sum game where your success is inverse to that of your peers, a situation which would make hostility towards them seem rational. By consciously identifying your peer network’s success with your own, though, you can help re-form these unconscious thoughts to eliminate the envy reflex.
Avoiding envy will help you mentally and emotionally participate in your friends’ and colleagues’ success. As you help them more and more, you’ll form a virtuous cycle as each person in your network invests in your success in addition to their own.