This article was originally published on May 12, 2014.
The other night, my boyfriend roused me from reading to announce that Business Insider has released Hottest Women in Tech Under 30 or some such list and urged me to take a look. “Here, this one is 24 and her Twitter has been named by TIME as the one to follow,” he said, pointing out a baby-cheeked young woman with millions of followers. I grumbled and turned around feeling grumpy and dark–why did he think I needed to know all these accomplished women, my peers or juniors, apparently shining stars and next generation entrepreneurs all?
I suffer from career envy. For someone so preoccupied with being good and kind, I don’t feel so kindly when I hear about the accomplishments of anyone who could be directly compared to me–not toward the achievers, or to myself. Don’t get me wrong, I do feel unblemished happiness for my friends when they achieve professional milestones. The closer I feel to the person, more pure my sense of pride and joy. But when those achievers are not my friends, but rather strangers, acquaintances, or direct competition, I feel a rush of envy and insecurity–sometimes so much that it throws a dark cloud in an otherwise fine day.
Apparently I’m not alone. According to Abraham Tesser, a professor of social psychology at the University of Georgia, when someone close to us outperforms us in something we care about, it threatens our self-esteem. In an experiment, people were given the information that someone close to them had achieved success in an area in which they’re also trying to excel. The subjects responded that they feel proud, but when they were secretly video-recorded, “you could see disappointment and negative effect in their faces.”
As long as we care about what we do, we will always have to balance self-esteem with selfless emotional generosity. Fortunately, there are ways to minimize the negative emotions arising from professional envy, and even channel that for positive results.
1. Know the difference between jealousy and envy: According to David Straker, the author of Changing Minds, jealousy stems from suffering loss, or fearing it. If a co-worker gets the promotion that you feel you deserved, that’s jealousy. Someone else got credit for the project that you executed? Also jealousy. Envy on the other hand is about desiring what you don’t have. If it is jealousy you’re dealing with, don’t just hide your sense of indignation. Spend some time processing your emotions and thoughts, and when you feel calmer, find an opportunity to be assertive about what you deserve.
2. Try to see more than what meets the eye: One of the biggest reasons I can be truly happy for my successful friends is that I know exactly how hard they work. My best friend, who is currently working for a hedge fund and attending the top MBA program in the country, is one of the hardest working people I know. But she doesn’t rub it into anyone that she travels between 2 cities and sacrifices normal work-life balance for what she wants to get professionally. It’s impossible to know what kind of sacrifices non-best friends make, but assume that they too work hard, put in blood sweat and tears, and experience rejections so that they can be successful.
3. Admit how you feel: One of the hardest things about professional envy, for me, is that I’m ashamed to be feeling it. That doubles the sense of insecurity with a nice hefty bonus of disappointment at my moral failing. When this happens, coming clean about my feelings works better than trying to ignore them. No one else needs to know, just yourself–and stating to yourself exactly how you feel, and why, puts the whole issue into perspective. You can see how un-useful it is to be feeling gloomy because a friend of a friend has posted a new, fancy job title, which you are not sure you’d want when it came down to that.
4. Change your perspective: If someone similar to you has done what you’d like to do, a) that means such a thing is possible and b) your potential for achieving it isn’t diminished. In a way it’s a positive confirmation that your dreams are actually attainable. It’s like hiking: even if someone has reached the peak first, that doesn’t set you back farther down the slope, or make your own climb any more difficult–and reaching the summit will be no less sweet.
5. Learn from their example: If someone who is similar to you has achieved success in your field, that’s great news! It means you have someone to learn from. Take a leaf from their strategies and past experience, and see if there’s anything you could follow or adapt. If it’s someone within your reach, you might also ask them out for coffee and ask for advice. You may well learn something or two, and even find out the real story behind her–which will make it easier to feel happy for her.
Have you ever felt career envy? How do you deal with these feelings? Please share!
Also in Career: 10 Best Job Search Tips
Photo: Anna Gearhart via Flickr