[A DAD’S POINT-OF-VIEW] Is Envy a Good Thing?

A recent visit to an old friend’s beautiful new home triggered a brief moment of envy for me.  While I was extremely happy and proud of his accomplishment in creating such a lovely home with so much care and detail, I also found myself longing for something similar in my life instead of the present rental that we have.  But, more importantly, I thought about how envy has occasionally motivated me to succeed and how I wonder if the same thing is happening to the present generation.

To be very clear, I believe there’s a huge difference between envy and jealousy. Envy is not necessarily a bad thing, while jealousy is almost always bad.  You can envy someone’s success, possessions, friends, or family, while still feeling positive towards him or her. Jealousy tends to have a component of dislike and negativity to it, directed at the person who has those things of which you’re jealous.  Also, jealousy is usually directed towards a person vs. possessions or other qualities, as in being jealous of the attention your spouse receives from someone else.

Early in my career, when I was an intern with a television company, we were housed on the Paramount Studio lot.  One’s status was often measured by two very public displays.  First and foremost was where one’s parking spot was on the lot.  And second, of course, was what was parked there.

I remember that the prime spot on the lot was that of Robert Evans, then the head of the studio.  In that spot, he parked his classic 60’s Mercedes convertible with the license plate RE 13.  I later learned that the “13” stood for the number of Academy Award nominations received by Chinatown, the movie he produced.  To me, as the young man with stars in my eyes, that car represented “making it.”

Around the same time, one day I was walking from my distant parking spot to our offices when I spotted a new gray Porsche, parked in a prominent spot.  As I approached it, admiringly, owner Don Simpson, another prominent studio executive, stepped out of it.  I didn’t know him, but I remarked how beautiful his gray Porsche looked to me.  He disdainfully replied, “It’s not gray, it’s anthracite” (note:  Don Simpson went on to produce Flashdance and Top Gun, among many other very successful feature films before dying, tragically, very young).

I eventually bought both cars (not their specific cars, but the same models), a decade or so later (and not at the same time, as I have no Jay Leno stable of automobiles).  How much did my envy of those cars, their parking spots, and incredible success affect me?  Who knows, but it remains a powerful memory.  And, I believe, it was a great motivator.

Now, as my sons are treated to excess materialism on every channel on television (especially with all the so-called reality television shows on the lives of the rich and famous–cribs, debutante parties, celebrity birthdays, etc.), will they be motivated or just jealous.  Will they be inspired to work hard to achieve the success to buy whatever it is they envy, or will it just make them feel like it’s hopeless?

The same applies to those around them who appear to succeed in school or other endeavors that interest them—rock ‘n’ roll in the case of Will, my teen, and manga comic art in the case of David, my pre-teen.  I see that Will is completely turned on and motivated by guitarists and drummers he perceives as “sick” (read: fantastic).  This inspires him to practice more as he listens to those he respects repeatedly in an effort to mimic them.  David tries to copy the art he most likes from the collection of manga books he’s accumulated.

So, I am seeing the benefit of envy in these cases with my boys.  Will the same hold true when Will’s friends get fancy cars while he’s still, maybe, just driving my truck?  How about when David goes over to visit his friend (whose father is a relatively well-known actor) at his mansion down the street, loaded with all their toys and a live-in housekeeper?

I like to think they can appreciate both scenarios without any loss of their own happiness.  At least, that’s my desire and maybe my naïve hope.  If I’ve given them strong enough values, they should understand that just about anything they want is within their grasp if they are willing to work for it, put in the effort, and most important of all, not give up at the first set-back — an inevitability with just about every important or difficult goal we set for ourselves.

It’s funny, but as I’ve grown older, those things I used to desire materialistically have faded.  The things important to me, now, are my relationships, my health, and doing something worthwhile with my life.  But, I can’t help but remember those feelings of envy back on the studio lot when I saw the big shots, their fancy cars, and their success.  I certainly was driven by this sort of desire and envy and it probably is no different for my sons.  At least I hope so.

Image credit: Laura Taylor

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