Greed is not Good. But Envy Is.

The new law of evolution in corporate America seems to be survival of the unfittest. Well, in my book you either do it right or you get eliminated. In the last seven deals that I’ve been involved with, there were 2.5 million stockholders who have made a pretax profit of 12 billion dollars. Thank you. I am not a destroyer of companies. I am a liberator of them!

The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will […] save […] the malfunctioning corporation called the USA. Thank you very much. Gordon Gekko.

Gordon Gekko got it wrong.

Greed isn’t good. Because greed is never satisfied. Greed creates an endless void that motivates poor decisions, causes the destruction of critical partnerships and inflames one’s sense of inadequacy. But, Envy. That’s different. Envy is good. And now there’s science to prove it.  

Distinguishing good from bad and how to use it

If you want to learn how to leverage this “deadly sin”, you first have to understand the difference between good envy (benign) and bad envy (malicious).

A simple example is as follows: you feel malicious envy towards a colleague who gains undeserved success. This type of envy makes you want to knock them down a peg or two … or ten.

You feel benign envy, however, when you feel that your colleague’s success is very well deserved. And their success, in turn, makes you want to work hard to achieve the same success. Simply put, benign envy inspires you to pull yourself up, while malicious envy narrows your efforts on how to pull the other person down.

This distinction is critical because focusing on bringing someone down does nothing to get you ahead. Malicious envy is like a frustrating game of whack-a-mole. Someone better will always pop out while you just waste your time losing tokens, your drive to succeed and, ultimately, the prize.

As soon as you start plotting someone’s downfall, stop. And remember: your personal success is much better revenge. The person you envy doesn’t care about how you feel and is likely getting ahead of you because they’re working and developing a better toolbox of talent, relationships and skills. To compete, then, it’s best that you focus on sharpening your skills and business model and not dulling those of who you envy.

Warning: avoid admiration like the plague.

Believe it or not, admiration can be just as dangerous as becoming a sloth. Philosopher Kierkegaard believed that admiring someone is like admitting defeat. Your admiration implies that you’re not good enough because you’ll never be able to reach that standard yourself. So, you give up, turn on Netflix and burry feelings of inadequacy under the “false gods” you’ve created out of reality TV stars. It sounds pretty ridiculous. Except science says it isn’t.

A group of PhDs and Professors from Tilburg University (The Netherlands) published a paper, Why Envy Outperforms Admiration, that supports Kierkegaard’s seemingly antisocial conclusion. The logic is as follows: the pain we experience when feeling envious is so terrible that we’ll do just about anything to avoid it.

The fastest and easiest way to avoid this pain is to convert our envy into “admiration”. We’ve distance ourselves from feelings of defeat and inadequacy by shining the spotlight on the other person.
Such distancing, however, pushes us into sloth territory because it demotivates us. We say to ourselves “well, they’re better and I’ll never get there, so I’ll sit here and admire them and give up on going for it”.

The critical component to your success, then, is learning how to veer away from admiration and straight towards envy. How? Simple. As soon as you start slipping into the black hole called admiration, remind yourself of the following: admiration makes you feel kinda good, but benign envy makes you feel really good.

How benign envy makes you feel really good

In his book, The Science of Sin: The Psychology of the Seven Deadlies (and Why They Are So Good For You), Simon Latham affirms that envy is good because it gives us hope. And hope, in turn, makes us feel better. Envy motivates us to improve and strive for more because it makes us change our expectations about what is possible for us to achieve.

Through numerous examples, Simon shows how a healthy mix of self esteem and good envy can motivate and fuel our belief in ourselves. Good envy, Simon says, inspires you to carefully watch the target of your envy. This careful observation effectively pulls back the curtain on your target. You discover that her process and work is what made her a success and not some innate talent you fundamentally lack. You now see that you’re capable of achieving the same and you’re more likely to hit your mark because you have clarity as to how to “get there”.

How do I leverage envy to motivate and plot my success?

When you come across someone who you envy, it’s critical to know what to ask. Good questions produce a great path to achieve the same. Here’s an approach I’ve used to convert my envy into what I need to do next:

  1. Ask how the “target” of your envy achieved his success. What got him there? Is it education? Work habits? Business model? Connections?
  2. Next, dig deep on the HOW. If you choose connections, for example, repeatedly ask yourself “HOW” he got those connections until it’s broken down into something that you can achieve to get the ball rolling e.g. join group X.
  3. Next, look at what you’re doing and ask yourself what stopped you from being the one on top. How come you’re not at that level? Think about this independently from how your target achieved his success. For example, is it low self-esteem? Fear?
  4. Finally create a plan that incorporates the answers in questions 2 and 3.

Be creative when mapping out your plan on how to propel yourself forward and into the realm of your target. There are no bad approaches – unless it’s illegal or hurts someone, of course.

If you’re stuck for ideas, call up your feelings of envy because envy has a relationship with your ability to make creative solutions and smarter decisions. A conclusion, once again, backed by an interesting study that exposed its participants to:

“… comparison targets who either threatened or boosted self-evaluations and then completed a performance task. Participants exposed to the threatening target performed better than those in a control group, whereas those exposed to the nonthreatening target performed worse.” (Johnson & Stapel, 2007)

Just like fats – small doses of envy can actually be good for you…so long as you can distinguish the good from the bad and simply don’t over-do it.