Build Your Own Castle

The Art of Thinking Clearly - Rolf Dobelli 2014

Build Your Own Castle


Three scenarios—which would irk you the most? (a) Your friends’ salaries increase. Yours stays the same. (b) Their salaries stay the same. Yours does, too. (c) Their average salaries are cut. Yours is, too. If you answered A, don’t worry, that’s perfectly normal: You’re just another victim of the green-eyed monster.

Here is a Russian tale: A farmer finds a magic lamp. He rubs it, and out of thin air a genie appears who promises to grant him one wish. The farmer thinks about this for a little while. Finally, he says: “My neighbor has a cow and I have none. I hope that his drops dead.”

As absurd as it sounds, you can probably identify with the farmer. Admit it: A similar thought must have occurred to you at some point in your life. Imagine your colleague scores a big bonus and you get a gift certificate. You feel envy. This creates a chain of irrational 'margin-bottom:0cm;text-align:justify;text-indent: 15.95pt;line-height:14.4pt;text-autospace:none'>Of all the emotions, envy is the most idiotic. Why? Because it is relatively easy to switch off. This is in contrast to anger, sadness, or fear. “Envy is the most stupid of vices, for there is no single advantage to be gained from it,” writes Balzac. In short, envy is the most sincere type of flattery; other than that, it’s a waste of time.

Many things spark envy: ownership, status, health, youth, talent, popularity, beauty. It is often confused with jealousy because the physical reactions are identical. The difference: The subject of envy is a thing (status, money, health, etc.). The subject of jealousy is the behavior of a third person. Envy needs two people. Jealousy, on the other hand, requires three: Peter is jealous of Sam because the beautiful girl next door phones him instead.

Paradoxically, with envy, we direct resentments toward those who are most similar to us in age, career, and residence. We don’t envy businesspeople from the century before last. We don’t begrudge plants or animals. We don’t envy millionaires on the other side of the globe—just those on the other side of the city. As a writer, I don’t envy musicians, managers, or dentists, but other writers. As a CEO you envy other, bigger CEOs. As a supermodel you envy more successful supermodels. Aristotle knew this: “Potters envy potters.”

This brings us to a classic practical error: Let’s say your financial success allows you to move from one of New York’s grittier neighborhoods to Manhattan’s Upper East Side. In the first few weeks, you enjoy being in the center of everything and how impressed your friends are with your new apartment and address. But soon you realize that apartments of completely different proportions surround you. You have traded in your old peer group for one that is much richer. Things start to bother you that haven’t bothered you before. Envy and status anxiety are the consequences.

How do you curb envy? First, stop comparing yourself to others. Second, find your “circle of competence” and fill it on your own. Create a niche where you are the best. It doesn’t matter how small your area of mastery is. The main thing is that you are king of the castle.

Like all emotions, envy has its origins in our evolutionary past. If the hominid from the cave next door took a bigger share of the mammoth, it meant less for the loser. Envy motivated us to do something about it. Laissez-faire hunter-gatherers disappeared from the gene pool; in extreme cases, they died of starvation, while others feasted. We are the offspring of the envious. But, in today’s world, envy is no longer vital. If my neighbor buys himself a Porsche, it doesn’t mean that he has taken anything from me.

When I find myself suffering pangs of envy, my wife reminds me: “It’s okay to be envious—but only of the person you aspire to become.”