The Power of Positive Envy

Wanting what others have can be motivating, if you put in the effort to achieve it
By James Walpole, FEE.org
October 28, 2019 Updated: October 28, 2019

Envy sucks as an emotion. It typically makes us miserable, and it can also make us want to make others miserable. But envy can also be used for good, particularly if we struggle to make changes, to face fears, or to take up new things.

Envy usually occurs when a person lacks a superior quality, achievement, or possession someone else has and either desires it or wishes they didn’t have it.

Now let’s scratch that last part about wishing ill on someone else and focus on the wish to acquire that attribute for ourselves.

Not athletic? Just spend five or six years watching everyone else play soccer, compete in track meets, do martial arts, and win football games. Let that feeling simmer.

Afraid of dancing? Spend time after time sitting awkwardly while everyone else has a great time on the dance floor. Miss out on those opportunities to dance with pretty girls. Feel fear while everyone else feels joy.

Fearing your next steps in the business world? Watch while all your peers and friends leave you in your unsatisfying job.

You’ll feel the same feeling in all these cases: paralyzing fear mixed with regret and envy of the people who feel neither. You don’t have to hold on to these feelings. All those people are having fun without you—not because they dislike you, but because you’re too afraid to join in. If positive incentive alone isn’t enough, you can use your envy as fuel to act.

Many of my own transformations in the past years have come from a basic desire to not be left out of the fun. And as far as envy goes, that has served me without many side effects. I’ve become an athlete, a speaker, a writer, a dancer, and karaoke singer—not the best, but at least good enough to participate.

The “positive envy” that drove this change is not the exclusionary kind of envy—others can still enjoy themselves while I enjoy myself. It’s not the domination kind of envy, not a desire to be better than others. It’s a desire to join in on the fun.

If you ever want to discover where you’ve been not brave enough, think of the things you see everyone else (but you) enjoying.

On the other hand, you may decide you are desiring something that just isn’t for you and you’d be better off letting go and moving on. It’s not always the case that just because you envy someone else’s ability that you need it yourself. It might be that you need to value your own unique attributes, focus on those, and stop comparing yourself with others.

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, intellectual explorer, and perpetual apprentice. He is an alumnus of Praxis and a Foundation for Economic Education’s Eugene S. Thorpe fellow. He writes regularly at jameswalpole.com. This article was originally published on FEE.org

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