How To Use Envy to Build Skills
It’s easy to confuse jealousy and envy. The way you react to any of them could be the switch that activates your latent superpowers.
I was never skilled at any Sports while growing up. Football (soccer) is a national sport in Cameroon. I was terrible at it. I was so terrible, the other team would rather leave the goal empty than play with me.
From Football to Basketball, I envied my friends; they seemed to have a great time. With prescription glasses from when I was 13, plus my second surgery, any form of physical exertion was off the table.
I’ve always admired people who could do amazing things with their bodies — it felt like they were able to access a level of living I couldn’t.
Then one day, I found out I had something other people envied.
It was 2006. My Literature teacher, Mr. Eugene Chia, pulled me out of the Science class so I could write and make a speech on the PTA (Parent-Teacher Association) Day. This wasn’t just any kind of honor. It was an amazing vote of confidence.
I got off stage brimming with the assured smile of an accomplished 16-year-old/ I was set for life! I had something my friends envied. I felt a surge in me, a feeling of self-pride.
I had a natural aptitude for words and language.
I wasn’t a loser! I wasn’t a “messer” after all!
It was the first time someone’s validation allowed me to emerge from my defeatist mentality. Someone saw skill in me and put up on a stage where I could soar. I can’t thank Mr. Chia enough for that.
I could have said I was lucky or picked at random or that others were better than me at writing and giving speeches. And yes, I could hear those whispers.
Another part of me was slightly more realistic. I had good grades in my Literature classes. I enjoyed the books I read: nerded out about Jane Eyre and Twelfth Night. I quoted The Crown of Thorns by Linus T. Asong, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.
A few years earlier, I had started in a drama organized by — you guessed it — my literature class. I wrote extensively about figures of speech when people had no idea what the heck was happening during tests.
I had something worth envying all this time and I needed someone else, to show it to me.
In many ways, I was lucky. Someone picked me. Someone chose me. But all the time it took to get me to where I am today, shows that if you don’t choose yourself, you’ll never allow luck to shine for you.
It still took me years to trace back to my love of books and writing before I ever started a blog. Even now as I write this, there’s still a voice whispering that I don’t have what it takes. That the fact that my articles are getting curated by Medium means nothing. When I pull my stats, I frantically compare to what I think is “great” stats.
That feeling I had while I watched my friends play from the sideline hasn’t left me. It may never will. So, I decided, after failing too many times and tired of being sorry for myself:
If it’s going to be here, I might as well use it.
A Game of Ping-Pong
When I moved to college, my envy for sports players diminished enough for me to pick up table-tennis. It was a “safer” game for my health and I could play with the people I wanted. I took a class and did well enough to realize that I did not really like the game. I just liked the feeling of being proficient in the game.
This thought: proficiency, is what guides my envy.
When I read a story, or watch a video, or listen to a podcast, first, I hear the envy voice popping up. I notice it.
Ooh, I want that huh?
The next question is: why?
My experience with sports shows that it’s not the sport that I want to play. It’s the skill of playing. My reading shows me that skills come with practice. That talent may have a lot to do with it, but skills can always be improved. It’s within our locus of control: what we read, what courses we take, how we use our time.
In 2012, when I started my defunct blog, I had no skills. Yet, I still raised envy in others. This envy, in turn, pointed out something I was good at.
Guess what I didn’t do? Double down. I enjoyed the ride and after a tapering stretch of minor successes, I got dissatisfied and frustrated. I started switching platforms. Trying different things. I got addicted, in a way, to the feeling of envy from others.
I was “Kamga the blogger!” I had an identity tied to my source of envy from others. I attended events. Wrote some random regurgitations.
I came back full-circle to where I was, trying different games to escape the feeling of inadequacy. That’s how we get in our own way.
We don’t notice what we’re envious of. We don’t find out why. We don’t double down on the key metrics.
So, how can you accomplish this in your life?
1. Welcome Envy
Notice how you feel when the feeling creeps in. Is it a great set of hair? Thousands of followers? Epic B-roll? What about this situation makes you feel like you don’t have the thing in front of you?
It doesn’t have to be in real-time. You might even feel guilty for it and try to downplay it. Don’t. Embrace this part of you and let it simmer for a bit. I’d recommend you don’t take action: except to write things down. Notice the feeling, the frustration, the agony.
2. Ask Why
What is the thing you wish you had? And why? Money? What would you do if you had it? A great voice? Is there something you wish you could have done in the past? Do you think that’s why other people love them? Is it because you can’t afford to buy gear? Are you looking for the kind of love partner they have? Ask why until you get an impartial, reasonable answer.
For me, it was because I admired how proficient people were when they were good coupled with the sense of community and competition.
By the end of the exercise, it almost always isn’t about the person but about you and what you want.
3. Identify The Key Metric
This is…well…key. What’s the thing you can work on to accomplish your why? Can you save money and buy a camera? Get another job? Acquire a monetizable skill? Can you exercise more to get lean? Can you take a public speaking class? Can you sleep more and have energy?
I realized very recently that one of my key metrics was “storytelling”. I love good movies. I love Anime. I love video games like Uncharted because of the gripping plot and story arc. I traced my experience and figured the only way to improve my odds: write more, study more, create more.
All you need at this point is to know your next best move.
The source of envy, the thing that you want — that you probably already have because it won’t trigger those feelings if you weren’t somehow drawn to it — is within your control.
Would you know about successful writers if you didn’t have an interest in writing? Would an epic photo make you feel bad if you didn’t have a love for photography?
You can become a better filmmaker. Just make more films. Study filmmaking and address what’s necessary for you to grow based on what you want. If you want to build a business, there are more metrics to factor in. More skills to gain, etc.
Your envy can be your source of power when you appreciate and leverage the feeling. Parse the thoughts through those three stages, you end up with impartial, actionable steps. The more you do it, the more you build a model to allow you to decide if somebody is even worth emulating.
When I see writers with skill on Medium or awesome video creators on YouTube, that voice still creeps in. I dig in: I look at their backlog of content and see how much work they’ve done; how much they deserve everything they’ve earned.
My envy for the people I admire has slowly transformed into something beautiful. Something that allows me to learn from them and grow myself.
I now feel gratitude for those ahead of me. They show what’s possible. They teach through their failures. They are living proof that when you work on something you’re good at, you can get amazing returns.
“Envy”, when properly converted, becomes “respect”.
And that, my friend, is how you channel envy to grow your skills in whichever direction you want.