Envy and the Entrepreneur: A Tale of Pies, Prayers and Redemption

Posted by on Aug 23, 2012 | 15 comments

In the Beginning…

It was 15 years ago, while I was in my second “grown-up” job, that I realized I had a problem.

We were having a team meeting in my boss’s office, all sitting at the round table sharing our progress on various projects. There was a new member of the team, I’ll call her Amy, whose energy was bubbly and all smiles. When Amy finished her reporting, my boss praised her up one side and down the other. I felt like shrinking into my seat. I saw the kudos as a threat to my position as a valued member of the team. More praise for her meant less praise for me. If she won, I lost.

Stephen R. Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” was one of the very first business/self-help books I ever purchased. At the same time as the incident I describe above (which probably happened more than once), I was making my way through the book. I’d had it for several years and had thumbed through it, but one particular reading session proved serendipitous – definitely an example of “when the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

It was these words on Habit 4, “Think Win/Win,” that grabbed me by the throat:

“Most people are deeply scripted in what I call the Scarcity Mentality. They see life as having only so much, as though there were only one pie out there. And if someone were to get a big piece of the pie, that would mean less for everybody else. The Scarcity Mentality is the zero-sum paradigm of life.”

This was 10 years before I began professional coach training, so it was 10 years before the words “scarcity mentality” had even entered my vocabulary. But reading those words, I knew what I had experienced at that team meeting. It was a rather ugly revelation. And, it was liberating. If Covey was writing about it, it meant I wasn’t the only one who’d ever felt that way. It was possible to shift my paradigm (another word that was new to me) so that I could be free from feeling like a loser when someone else emerged victorious. Part of my reaction to Amy had to do with a lack of professional maturity, but it also had to do with having a scarcity mindset.

Wanting a Piece of the Pie

Ever since then, I’ve been striving to sustain an abundance mentality. The pie is enormous, and there is more than enough for all. I really appreciate how Guy Kawasaki put it in his recent book, “Enchantment”:

“There are two kinds of people and organizations in the world: eaters and bakers. Eaters want a bigger slice of an existing pie; bakers want to make a bigger pie. Eaters think that if they win, you lose, and if you win, they lose. Bakers think that everyone can win with a bigger pie.”

With my new attitude of abundance, I was feeling pretty good. I was able to celebrate the success of my friends and peers, knowing that my hard work was bringing me success as well. There was more than enough to go around. This attitude extended from my time in mainstream employment through to entrepreneurship.

This didn’t mean that I didn’t occasionally feel envious of one of my colleagues who landed a big client or received special recognition. I’m human. I’ve got a healthy competitive streak, probably left over from my days as a musician and feeling driven to be “the best.” Usually the envy I felt was short-lived and private, and perspective returned when I immersed myself in my work.

Confession is Good for the Soul

Now it’s time for the confession. I share it with the intention of shining the light on the fact that envy – between friends, colleagues and strangers alike – is an emotion experienced by almost everyone, including entrepreneurs and leaders, whether they openly acknowledge it or not.

At its core, it’s not an introvert/extrovert trait; it’s simply a human trait.

Before the confession, the definition: what is envy? Envy is “a feeling of discontent or covetousness with regard to another’s advantages, success, possessions, etc.”* Psychologists have more recently discerned that there are subtleties within that definition, positing that there is malicious envy (“You have what I want, so I hope something bad happens to you”) and benign envy (“You have what I want, and that inspires me to work harder so I can have it, too”).

My entrepreneurial adventure has introduced me to another shade of envy: self-pity envy.

What I call “self-pity envy” is a desire to have what another person has, and to feel sorry for myself because I don’t have it. This by extension means it can be very difficult to feel genuinely happy for another person’s success. This envy is somewhere in between malicious and benign. I don’t wish the other person harm, but I’m feeling more defeated than inspired.

Over the past year or so, I’ve felt this more than I care to share. In tones that are apologetic and maybe even a touch embarrassed, friends have disclosed to me that they, too, experience this type of envy.

We feel bad admitting it. Even as we feel it and now it’s real, to our ears it sounds petty. We know that feeling that type of envy is limiting and self-sabotaging.

The Gifts of Envy

But even envy has a silver lining: it’s an opportunity for reflection, new self-awareness and profound growth.

First, it’s important to recognize the feeling for what it is and be compassionate with ourselves. Judging ourselves, or responding with “Oh, quit being stupid! You know better! What’s wrong with you that you can’t be happy for him?” isn’t going to help us move through the emotion in a healthy way. It’s only going to reinforce the feeling of “poor little me, drawing the short straw again.”

Self-pity envy reveals a lot about our ambitions, both achieved and unrealized. We might notice themes: repeated envy of someone else’s publishing success, or ability to close a sale or land a lucrative engagement. It might revolve around seeing other people being promoted faster than you, or being asked to take the lead on an important project. It could even center on others’ ability to purchase certain objects of desire, travel, go back to school, or create a certain lifestyle or freedom for themselves.

When we’re triggered by someone else’s success, it’s usually telling us about something that’s important to us. The envy shows up because we might feel we’ve missed an opportunity that the other person seized, or that they beat us to the great idea. Once we see someone else grab the brass ring and envy creeps in, we’re practically forced to confront where we’ve fallen short.

The result can be an uncomfortable blend of conflicting feelings. Intellectually, we’re happy for our colleague’s success. We know that his win doesn’t equal our loss. Emotionally, we feel dinged, a bit bruised.

And what if you were both in the running for the same prize? What if his win really resulted in your loss?

Hey! That’s MY Piece!

I see this scenario happening more and more in my life and that of my peers. As we each experience more success and expand our vision, we find that we overlap in our ambitions. We’re cultivating the same corporate clients. We’re applying to speak at the same conference. Even if we’re providing different services or products, our paths are crossing in a competitive way. And because we’re playing in a bigger arena, the stakes feel higher.

We’re all trying to eat from the same pie, and it just doesn’t feel big enough.

I’ve discovered that a track record of personal success does not make one immune to self-pity envy. Here’s an example: I recently applied to speak at a prestigious local event. I’m guessing there were dozens of qualified applicants for fewer than 10 spots. Several of my friends – outstanding speakers and entrepreneurs in their own right – also applied. Within this group, one of us was selected. She had an outstanding topic and had worked hard to build a platform that deserved the spotlight.

When I first got the news of her selection, I felt torn. My first thoughts were directed inward: why wasn’t I chosen? What did my application lack? Did they think I was a loser? Maybe I’m not that good. My second thoughts were about my friend: I’m so happy for her! She totally deserves it, and she’s a rock star.

And while I was happy for her, my own self-pity prevented me from fully being able to celebrate her success in that moment. I didn’t wish her ill. I didn’t wish that she hadn’t been selected. It was more about feeling small, insignificant and like I’d been taken down a few notches.

She wins, I lose. Poor little me. It was déjà vu all over again.

The Relief of Redemption

Mercifully, the next day, I had an epiphany. I was done with the pity party. In reality, not getting what I wanted didn’t really matter a hill of beans. Getting it would have been great, don’t get me wrong. But NOT getting it didn’t change anything about who I am, what I do or what I have to offer. It didn’t erase my previous accomplishments. It didn’t spell gloom and doom for my future prospects. Going into competitive mode was not going to serve me or my message. In the scheme of things, it just wasn’t a big deal. It was what it was.

As one of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott, shares in her book “Traveling Mercies”:  “A woman I know says for her morning prayer, ‘Whatever’ and for the evening, ‘Oh, well.’”

There is such wisdom there for those of us who feel occasional pangs of self-pity envy. There’s a release and an acceptance that comes with “whatever” and “oh, well.” It’s not about giving up; it’s about giving space over to the unexpected. It’s about being unattached to the way things “should” be. Those words remind me not to take myself so gosh darn seriously.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter who hires me, who asks me to speak, or who gives me kudos. What matters is that I’m putting one foot in front of the other. I move forward patiently, persistently, and with good intentions. I’m speaking my truth. Not everyone will like it or even understand it. But for those who do, it makes a world of difference.

If I give in to self-pity envy, I’m disrespecting myself, my message and the people I serve. I’m withholding love and denying myself an opportunity to share in a friend’s success. In short, I’m giving away my power. And an entrepreneur or leader who does that will soon find him- or herself in a deep, dark hole, isolated and sad.

Earlier I mentioned that having compassion for yourself is the first step to shifting your perspective. Remind yourself that you’re actually grieving a perceived loss. Those feelings indicate that something was important to you. You cared. And because you cared, you’re allowed to feel disappointed. Give yourself the space and grace to feel how you feel.

Eventually, you’ll be ready to move on. How do you shake off the little gremlin voice that says, “I’m envious of his success”? You listen and learn from it. Objectively and without judgment, notice where the disappointment is coming from: is it because you procrastinated? Because you were still a novice? Because you didn’t call, follow up or otherwise reach out? Because you didn’t tell someone what you wanted, or why it was important? Because you made a mistake or didn’t give it your best? Because you approached the situation from fear, scarcity or with self-defeating beliefs?

There is valuable information in your envy. You can use it to inform your next steps, how you build the rungs that will enable you to climb out of the hole. You may come to the same conclusion I did: that the “loss” was indeed perceived, not real.

The only thing you lose is what you chose to give away… your power, your confidence, your motivation.

In realizing that you don’t have to play small and by reclaiming what you know is true, you restore your positive energy and have some to give to the other person. Your self-pity envy evolves into benign envy, or no envy at all. You’re inspired to create success for yourself because you believe in your abilities, not because you fear you’ll be left behind.

Envy can be agonizing to admit. After all, it’s one of the seven deadly sins and one of ten commandments that many of us learned from childhood. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, among others, all single out envy as a source of pain and suffering.

Therefore, admitting I feel envy is like admitting, “I’m a sinner.” Who among us isn’t? I don’t want to turn this into a religious debate; I do want to recognize that our shame or guilt around envy might have its roots in our faith tradition. That might be a consideration for how you work through envy when it happens.

I wish I were enlightened enough to tell you that now that I’ve confronted this darker part of my psyche, I’ll never feel malicious or self-pity envy again. The truth is, I’m sure I’ll live to envy again. So will friends and peers, colleagues and strangers.

But rather than fall victim to it, I will honor the feeling for what it is (grief, disappointment), then discern a way to be inspired into positive action. Instead of harshly judging myself, I will feel compassion. Before I turn too far inward toward self-pity, I will allow the other’s victory to lift my hopes and remind me of the important work to be done.

There is plenty of delicious pie to go around. Sometimes, we’ll eat more than we bake. Our appetite for success, recognition and reward might get the better of us on occasion. The antidote is to figure out what you’re really hungry for, and then bake more of it. A scarcity mentality means you’re fighting to get the biggest piece because you feel empty; an abundance mentality will always leave you feeling full, rich and with an infinite capacity to celebrate success wherever and whenever it shows up.

What’s the relationship between introverts and how we feel and respond to envy? Stay tuned for a second installment on this topic in my next blog post.

* http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/envy

PS: Does all this talk of pies leave you craving one?  There’s a great recipe on the blog I borrowed the featured image from: