Personally and professionally, envy gets you nowhere

Don Spetner on why you should never befriend the 'green-eyed monster'

In the tenth grade I transferred to a new high school. I didn’t have friends, didn’t know any of my classmates, and was surrounded by a community of people who all seemed to have been together since grade school.

To add insult to injury, I was 15 years old, 5 feet 2 inches tall, wore glasses, and weighed 97 pounds. Needless to say, I was nervous, insecure, and scared.

My social breakthrough came in biology class in the form of a lab partner named Bill.

He was everything I wasn’t – tall, handsome, confident, and popular. He was also funny and smart, and we fast became friends. Bill was a risk taker and a dreamer, and he pushed me to take chances and believe in myself. He brought me out of my shell, and we ultimately became co-presidents of the senior class together.

When it came time to apply for college, Bill and I both wanted to go to Brown University. Though my test scores and GPA were slightly higher, Bill got in and I didn’t. I was happy for him, but deep down I was jealous of his success. It gnawed at me that he got into a better school. 

Four years later, Bill got a plum job at American Express that paid almost twice what I was making, and my jealousy only grew. While I knew Bill had his own problems, I kept comparing myself to him and felt badly that he seemed to be achieving more than me.

As our paths diverged, so did our friendship and I slowly lost touch with him. I moved to New York, joined a big PR agency, and made friends in business through socializing and networking. And as my roles and responsibilities progressed, I gained confidence and worried less about how Bill and others were doing.

I was fortunate enough to build a long and fulfilling career, but I have to admit that occasionally I would observe a friend or colleague land a big job, and the old feelings of envy and insecurity I had experienced with Bill would reappear and then seep in around new colleagues.

I finally reconnected with Bill when he showed up at our 35th high school reunion, and while I was not able to attend, a mutual friend connected us and we met for coffee when I was back in my hometown.

When I first saw him, I was shocked at how Bill looked, and even more shocked at the arc of his life. After landing that first big job at American Express, his life had been a slow, gradual descent into trouble. He got kicked out of graduate school for cheating, had a series of dead-end jobs and broken relationships, and developed a serious drinking problem. He could barely make ends meet.

When I met him for coffee, he was doing better. His mother had left him some money, he had an apartment and a car, and he was trying to hold a steady job. But he was a shell of the charismatic, vibrant guy, whose success I was so foolishly envious of.

I know it’s human nature to compare ourselves to others, but I couldn’t help feeling like I had wasted a lot of time over the years judging myself against Bill and then other colleagues who seemed to be doing better than me.

It took me years to embrace the simple practice of being grateful for what I had, of appreciating the bounty that was around me, and of gracefully accepting that there would always be people who were smarter, wealthier, and more powerful. And that I really should be focusing on my life, not theirs. 

Don Spetner is a senior corporate adviser with Weber Shandwick. He was previously CCO and CMO for Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at donspetner@gmail.com

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