The upside of career envy
By Nihar Chhaya
We all compare ourselves with others at various times in our lives. To succeed in a competitive world, it’s only natural for us to benchmark our progress against the people around us. And for those with a high need for achievement, constant external comparison becomes a source of motivation and a way to set clear targets for career success.
But when you find yourself constantly comparing your career to others, you may succumb to the painful sensations of envy, allowing someone else’s accomplishments to make you feel inferior. According to a recent study, more than 75 per cent of people reported feeling envious of someone in the last year. While envy can be motivating for some, for others, it can sabotage their chances of success.
Here are some strategies you can implement to stop the agony of comparison in its tracks and eventually make envy work for you.
Allow the envy, stop the shame
It’s almost impossible to will yourself out of feeling envy. But you can control the shame that often follows it, which exacerbates the problem. To keep acute envy from turning into a chronic problem, you must calmly accept the discomfort but refuse to give in to the shame that often follows.
Recent research shows we become less envious of things after they happen than before they do. For instance, hearing that a colleague is going to get promoted in a few weeks to a role you wanted, triggers more feelings of envy than reflecting on promotions that have already taken place. And when envy grips you, if you begin to “feel bad about feeling bad,” you essentially turn a human emotion we all feel, into even more painful self-loathing and shame.
Remind yourself that while you can’t control envy, you most certainly can choose whether to feel shameful about it or not. And when you patiently allow yourself to feel envy about a situation and prevent shame from prolonging its negative impact, the sting will slowly diminish.
Shift from comparison to curiosity
To keep comparison from becoming self-defeating, get curious about why someone triggered it for you and explore how their journey may teach you something about your future path, instead of assuming that their success somehow negates your chances.
When I was a freshman in college 29 years ago, I lived on the same floor as one classmate who is now an anchorwoman on a national news network, another who is a Middle East ambassador to the United States, and yet another who leads one of the world’s largest private equity firms. They are just a handful of successful people I had a chance to know when we were just teenagers, before any of us knew what careers we would lead.
While I didn’t pursue the same professions as them after college, I have fallen into the comparison trap at times, reflecting on the success we each have reached according to different measuring sticks (e.g., fame, financial, fulfilment), merely because of this common thread in our past. But just as I advise other high-achieving leaders, I know that interpreting someone else’s success as a sign of my inferiority is limiting. Instead, I can decide to shift from self-analysis to outward curiosity.
Upon becoming curious about why I saw their experiences as much more important than mine, I realised it was because their stories reflected some of my values and interests. So I thought about my work as an executive coach and what their journeys could teach me about my chosen craft. That thought process led me to think, how might I bring coaching to their worlds of media, entertainment, diplomacy, and venture capital?
Soon I felt excited about my future career rather than being inwardly critical by choosing how to think about the things that trigger comparisons for me. And I realised that we all become successful in unpredictable ways, depending on our individual cocktails mixing effort, persistence, resilience, and even luck.
Move toward, not away from, those you envy
Being happy for someone you envy is hard because it can reinforce in your mind that they are superior to you. And since we feel more intense envy of another’s success, the more similar our work or closer our relationship is, we often cope by creating more distance with them, rather than benefiting from the relationship.
A coaching client of mine was a long-tenured VP in a Fortune 500 company whose peer was recently hired, then quickly promoted to be his boss. He was always comparing his career to his new boss and avoided engaging with her, even considering quitting.
Through further exploration, we found he didn’t even want the SVP job and agreed she would be better than him at it. What triggered envy for him was his belief that the CEO of the company now saw him as less competent and motivated than the SVP. So he didn’t envy her because he wanted to mimic her achievements necessarily. Instead, he coveted the validation she got from a source that he saw having high status and power (the CEO). Based on this insight, he decided to move closer to his peer rather than away, and honestly share his struggle with her.
She appreciated his candour and vulnerability in clarifying his fears rather than unfairly projecting on her. To his surprise, the SVP assured him and said, “I respect your wisdom and experience here and don’t want to lose you. Let’s both help each other be successful in the eyes of the CEO.”
Viewing people you envy as allies on your journey, rather than as a threat to your goals, can be painful at first but prove highly beneficial for your future success. If you always avoid people that trigger self-comparison, you may miss out on learning that those successful people might want to help you.
View your career like a portfolio of investments, not one job
When you identify your self-worth by your job, you are setting up yourself for disappointment anytime you see someone surpassing you. But by defining your career as a diverse portfolio of time and talent investments you make to bring value to the world, you can hedge against the painful moments of feeling behind in some areas, with activities where you build a lead.
Take Peter, a director of HR in a Fortune 500 company, who loved his job and his company but struggled with where his career was going. He was a top performer, but his company kept postponing promoting him to VP because of the traditionally low number of VP roles and even fewer above them.
In Peter’s impatience, he was always comparing himself to others in his network that were advancing in other companies, but he also didn’t want to leave his company, which he felt was one of the best places to work.
Thinking about his career like a portfolio of activities rather than one job, he thought about his expertise on HR issues. He began blogging about it on social media in his free time. A few months later, a kindred spirit and HR expert reached out to explore starting a podcast together.
Peter’s boss could tell that he was still dedicated to his job, so she supported his writing and even shared his posts with company executives to elevate his profile. He was excited by the positive response and started to treat his career like an ever-evolving portfolio of investments that would increase his future value, whether he decided to stay or leave the company.
We all compare our careers to others at one time or another. Following these strategies, when you find yourself falling into a downward spiral of comparison will help you shorten the discomfort and even make envy work for you.
Note: This article was originally published on Harvard Business Review by Nihar Chhaya, an executive coach to senior leaders at global companies, including American Airlines, Coca-Cola, GE, and Dell. A former F500 corporate head of talent development, he is the President of PartnerExec, helping leaders master interpersonal savvy for superior business and strategic outcomes.