When I was working in the Israeli security field, I once met a man who brought out the worst in me. It wasn’t his fault; it was mine. I was envious of him, of all the things he possessed that I didn’t. To put it mildly, I didn’t handle the situation very well.
Mordechai (*not his real name) and I worked in the same private security firm in Tel Aviv. The firm was a temporary stop for both of us, but for different reasons. Mordechai had just completed employment at one of Israel’s most prominent agencies in the intelligence community and was in a transition period before heading to another agency. The firm was a part-time gig to make some money in the waiting period before he started his real job.
For me, the firm was an unintended landing pad after my military service. I had been slated to join a prestigious intelligence officers training program in the IDF—a real feat for a female American immigrant. But let’s just say a wrench or two had been thrown into my plans. As a result, I was forced to make concessions and begrudgingly adjust my career path.
After a real ego-bruising experience in the military, I came face-to-face with Mordechai, the golden child of the security community. He was greatly admired, while I was hanging on by the skin of my teeth. From the moment I heard our boss extolling his praises in the office, I wanted to kick Mordechai’s ass.
From the beginning of my career, I was acutely aware of all the “minuses” in my profile: I was an immigrant (read: outsider, with subpar Hebrew), female, skinny, insecure, crappy mental health records (which I was working vigorously to hide from everyone). Mordechai, aside from being obviously male, was a native-born Israeli with the physical fitness of an athlete, as well as a martial arts whiz with a brilliant command of foreign languages, among other superior qualities.
I didn’t realize right away that I was envious. That’s the funny thing about envy; it’s painful to admit to ourselves, so we instantly try to bury it and make excuses for why we don’t like the other person.
Since I couldn’t compete with Mordechai physically, I did the next best thing: I tried to manipulate him psychologically. Do you think this ended well? Of course not.
The fact that I even considered competing against a guy like this should indicate how wildly ridiculous I was in my twenties.
This is the way I put it in my memoir, after meeting Mordechai for coffee in the city to talk shop one morning:
I took the long way home that day, annoyed that I had let Mordechai get under my skin so easily. He was screwed up for sure, but…He was shameless in taking what he wanted, fully committed to his cause, disciplined in body and spirit. I felt like a mirror opposite of his psyche: I was ambivalent, awkward, guilt-ridden, emotional…I was a coward, wrapped in my own insecurities. He was willing to overcome all pain and discomfort to become a true warrior, while I stood vacillating on the sidelines.
As you can probably tell from this little snippet of internal dialogue, envy tells us more about how we feel about ourselves than it does about the other person.
I became interested in exploring the dynamics of envy recently thanks to a book by Robert Greene titled The Laws of Human Nature in which he dedicates an entire chapter to the topic. As he puts it, “Of all the human emotions, none is trickier or more elusive than envy. It is very difficult to actually discern the envy that motivates people’s actions.” Part of the reason envy sucks so much is because it entails an admission of inferiority. It also puts us in an unflattering light, so we’ll go through great lengths to hide the truth from both ourselves and from others.
Putting aside the adventures in my memoir, I think envy is an especially fascinating topic to explore against the backdrop of the security field. While ideally we should all be working collaboratively, competition runs high in the security community—whether it’s between colleagues or woven into interagency conflicts. As former senior CIA officer James Acuna pointed out in a recent interview on the blog (check it out here), there can be real consequences for security professionals who are perceived as falling behind in the field. When the stakes are high and the average employee highly ambitious, things can get ugly.
So, how do we rein in the green-eyed monster before it devours us alive? Robert Greene, of course, has the answer: “You need to overcome the natural resistance to seeing the emotion as it first stirs within you. We all compare ourselves with others; we all feel unsettled by those who are superior in some area that we esteem; and we all react to this by feeling some form of envy.”
Also consider a few of these strategies for managing your envy:
Rule #1: Practice gratitude. Focus on what you have rather than what you lack. Cultivating gratitude can help shift your perspective and give you a new appreciation for your own abilities.
Rule #2: Be mindful that no one has it all. Sometimes when you get closer to the object of your envy, you realize that while they excel in one area, they may struggle in another.
Rule #3: Transmute envy into emulation. When you meet a Mordechai in your life, consider it a privilege. Don’t try to rip him down; learn as much as you can from him.
Rule #4: Practice Mitfreude, as opposed to Schadenfreude. In plain English, this means instead of deriving pleasure when the object of your envy stumbles in some way, discipline yourself to empathetically experience joy at the success of others.
Rule #5: Admire human greatness. Acknowledge the achievements of others, celebrate their triumphs, and recognize that we are not diminished in any way by the greatness of others.
As the storyline progresses in my memoir, I wound up learning a lot about myself, making peace with Mordechai, and ultimately coming to terms with my true calling in the security community.
The basic challenge is this: know thyself, including the ugly parts. At the end of the day, one of the greatest gifts we can give to ourselves is to be at peace with our true nature.